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Brett Snyder Debunks the Golden Age of Airline Travel with Bunk

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Brett Snyder is the editor of The Cranky Flier and president of the air travel service Cranky Concierge. You might think he’d be the one to listen to about airline travel — specially the fee-laden, time-crunched reality that is taking to the air these days — but you’d be wrong. In his article, “Don't let bag fees make you nostalgic,” Snyder puts today’s flying experience in perspective by pointing out why the Golden Age of airline flying wasn’t really golden. If by “golden” he means “not screwed,” then sure; but that isn’t what he means.

Deregulation, 9/11, and “the bursting of the tech bubble” are to blame for all that is aeronautically amiss, Snyder says, even as he says things have always been amiss for one reason or another. For instance, if bought with today’s dollars, a 1959 fare of $168.40 would be $1,225. Too, he tells us, comfort was relative and would have “left you feeling like you were sitting on a washing machine for hours after you landed.”

That’s a nice story, Grandpa. Now tell us how much a record player sold in 1959 would cost today and how we wouldn’t be able to play Blu-ray discs on it. Then ask us if we give a flying rat’s ass.

Snyder initially stops short of blaming airline passengers themselves for the state of things until one of them, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (NY), waves the bullshit flag over carry-on fees. Schumer says this fee "crossed the line of acceptable practices.” Snyder asks, “But what is an ‘acceptable practice’ when it comes to air travel?” I would ask just how much is this guy getting paid by the airlines to type tripe?

One of the biggest complaints about airlines today is the way they nickel and dime paying passengers with fees instead of just raising the prices of tickets across the board. In the Golden Age of flying, people knew if they could afford a plane ticket or not just by calling an airline and asking for the price of a ticket. Now it’s less painful to have teeth pulled than to figure out what the end cost will be.

Do you plan to take clothes and toiletries with you? How much does all that weigh? Do you want to get there on time and might you alter your return plans? Do you plan to eat, sleep, use the lavatory, breathe, or look out the window? Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching a ling a ling. The only thing louder than a passenger bemoaning the astronomical difference between the price of an airline ticket and the actual cost of flying is the sound barrier being broken by the speed with which an airline figures out a new fee to charge in the few minutes it takes you to get from your seat in the waiting area to your seat on the aircraft.

Another common complaint is the profound lack of airline punctuality. From the moment the check baggage line finally opens to the moment you find yourself at the other end of your trip, the airlines have worked hard to concoct all manner of verbiage to justify their tardiness. It’s a quick enough fix: book x number of seats with x number of people and take off when you said you would.

Alas, the airlines figured out that a paid-for seat could be sold again if the first paying passenger was a no-show. Initially this was good for someone on the stand-by list, but this has since become the hell we know as overbooking – or what the airlines might as well call, “Sit down, shut the hell up, and wait. You’re not going to get what you paid for.” The paying passengers who do show up are expected to act as if they didn’t pay good money for a flight and don’t have anywhere to be at a particular time.

Airlines pretend to be surprised by the paying public’s disdain for them, but this doesn’t stop the reason for the disdain: fees, tardiness, and poor customer service. All the while they’re singing a sad song about overhead and passenger expectation. Snyder notes, “People fully expect their flying experience to be terrible, yet even with low expectations, there never seems to be a shortage of complaints.”

Are their complaints really about their flying experiences? I’m betting the majority of complaints are about everything that happens before they ever board the plane.

In reality, most people who can afford to fly don’t care how much it costs or how long it takes to get from point A to point B as long as the cost of travel is made clear upfront and the aircraft departs and arrives within a few minutes of schedule, barring any acts of nature. If this way of doing business sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how things were done in the Golden Age. (Memo to the airlines: Eyjafjallajokull is an act of nature. The cost of fuel is not.)

Flying is expensive for those who can barely scrape together cab fare to the bus station. This is not brand new information to anyone. Sure it sucks to find out you can’t afford the price of an airline ticket, but better to be told as much when you’re sitting at home making travel arrangements on a budget. Worse than finding out you can’t afford a ticket is finding out you can — only to have to pay even more for less regard than is afforded cargo.

Snyder says, “When deregulation occurred 30 years ago, it brought a major shift for the industry. […] That brutal competition claimed many carriers, including the legendary Pan Am.” Oh, boo hoo! That “brutal competition” should’ve meant the most punctual airlines with the best service and the best prices would prevail. That isn’t what happened at all. Instead, “competition” for the good of paying passengers was reduced to “comp” as one airline after another was bailed out like spoiled children whose math skills and manners did not include the ideas that badly managed money will run out and treating people like shit will not make them like you more.

Would the airline industry implode if they raised prices to cover those alleged expenses so that all you paid for was a ticket? Snyder thinks so. “Having low fares is incredibly important for filling all those seats.” What a crock of shit! Yes, low fares are nice, but are they realistic?

There was a time when the price you were quoted for a plane ticket was the price you paid to travel by air in relative comfort. Lots of people couldn’t afford to fly and no one’s roof caved in as a result. There were, and are, other modes of transportation. Those who could afford to fly were not forced to pry information about fees from employees who were instructed to disclose as little as possible, nor was anyone put on the spot by some arbitrary last minute change.

The Golden Age of flying was proof that good customer service and honest business dealings could make a bumpy ride worth the cost for those who could afford it and something to aspire to for those who couldn’t. It wasn’t done by a bunch of people trying to put a shine on shit (which Mythbusters proved could be done, but it would take the kind of work the airlines have made clear they are not willing to do).

There’s little the paying passenger can do about poor airline service but deal with it or not use air travel. Airlines have the right to run their businesses any way they choose, even if they choose to run it into the ground.

What’s disturbing is the number of times they’ve been allowed to do this with the financial blessing of other people’s money and the way they have come to treat those people. That’s a stark enough reality without the likes of Snyder chiming in with something akin to Zelda Rubinstein’s performance in Poltergeist: “All are welcome into the light.”

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • bliffle

    I’ll second that! Another fun article by Diana Hartman!

    The airlines have exceeded any margin of tolerance we may have granted them in the past. They are abusive and show no signs of reforming. Isn’t there a Three Strikes law we can enforce to get rid of them?

    Airline service was comfortable and cheap (yes, cheap!) in the 60s and 70s and then they got their for-hire politicians to lower the monopoly-boom on us poor disorganized citizens.

    Maybe you don’t believe me. Maybe you’ve been brain-washed by incessant airline propaganda and political apologias, but service was better and rates were cheaper.

    In the 60s I could fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles for $10 on the turbo-prop in one hour, and on the jet for $12.50 in 45 minutes. Young Galahads in my cohort would sometimes fly with a date to LA to take in a show and dinner. The seats were comfortable and service was timely and courteous.

    I often flew from SF to Mpls. for a Thanksgiving or Xmas long weekend for $210 roundtrip. Before deregulation!

    A pox on all the airlines! Nowadays they lie to you incessantly (promising seats that they only hope will actually exist when you try to board), over-charging retroactively (using their sweetheart swindle deal with CreditCard companies and not allowing cash purchase), and if you do manage to survive the airlines gauntlet and file a complaint they may even try to sue you!

    How can they survive, you might ask, in the face of customer detestation? Simple. They use an old corporate ‘tag team’ trick and skim profits off each quarter to a holding corp and leave the operating company with NO retained earnings to take up slack. Then they plead poverty and appeal to the government for subsidies and forebearance. What pikers! These companies, who have been nothing but brutal to their customers and their employees (hiring desperate pilots for $25,000/year who have to work long hours at outside jobs and businesses to feed their families and who arrive at work tired and distraught to fly 300 people cross-country), these rotten companies ask for subsidies and forgiveness and forbearance while they greedily consume the well being of everyone they encounter!