Complaining and Flying

But what about the delays, you ask? Delays suck. And they occur on almost 20 percent of flights. But as a person who, whatever his other flaws, is extremely punctual, I’m here to tell you that you’re often late too…

Of course when you’re late, you have an excuse. Your earlier meeting started late. You were stuck in traffic. The baby was sick. Airlines have these problems too! It gets unexpectedly icy. Key personnel get sick or delayed in traffic. The difference between you and the airline is that the airline has to report its on-time statistics to the government while you get to just make excuses.

Matthew Yglesias defends domestic air travel, arguing that it’s safer and cheaper than ever before, so we should stop complaining so much about it. Personally, I don’t have too much to complain about, though who you fly with makes a big difference—people love to complain about American Airlines, and love to love Virgin America (the airline I fly with the most regularly, which topped the rankings of the best U.S. airlines in a recent report). This doesn’t stop delays from sucking though. Nobody likes being stranded at the airport.

Photo: lwy


19 Comments / Post A Comment

I’m a little surprised that you would choose Virgin America as in my experience it is rarely the cheapest flight available (although it is really nice). Do they have a really good loyalty program or is there another reason you fly them most often?

ETA: Also, My anecdata shows that Jet Blue is much better at being on time then American Airlines. I haven’t flown anyone else enough to have an opinion.

Mike Dang (#2)

@Michelle LeBlanc@twitter I’ve found direct flights from New York to Calif. (where my folks live) for $130. Plus, I’ve never had a bad experience with them. But really, I’m not always looking for the cheapest flight. I’ll pay more to fly direct than one with a layover (time is money).

@Michelle LeBlanc@twitter VX isn’t always the cheapest, but it’s service is superior, and some of us will pay for a more humane experience. The loyalty program actually isn’t that great (it’s newish), but one upside is that means that they treat general passengers better. Whereas on United or American, if you don’t have status, you are dirt, especially when there are problems. Or, Jet Blue has better legroom for everyone; on United or American, you have to pay the upcharge to the economy plus section to get a similar amount of space.

@Mike Dang I also don’t book based on the absolute cheapest fare. (I might be a cheapskate, but at least in this area I’m not contributing to the race to the bottom when it comes to deteriorating service.)

I’m looking for a flight to London this summer and I’m willing to pay a little more to be on an airline that doesn’t suck. I’ll take a Virgin Atlantic flight– with free AVOD, with drinks, and generally friendlier employees– than a comparably or even lower priced flight on United or American. I also pay for extra legroom seats. Of course, I’m also a weirdo in that I also rule out flights based on the aircraft (I don’t want to fly a single-aisle 757 on a transatlantic flight).

It does require some vigilance in booking, though, with some of the code shares. Flights to London on BA and AA in economy usually run the same price (they are both OneWorld alliance members). On BA: free drinks and seat-back entertainment. And BA makes a damn fine Bloody Mary, even in Y.
On AA: booze is $7 or thereabouts and not all of the planes have in-seat video. I’ll take the BA-operated flight every time.

The big question is why are so many foreign airlines cheap, profitable, AND comfortable? Some of them are subsidized but, really, less so than the repeatedly bailed out American carriers. The big Euro flag carriers, BA/IAG, Air France/KLM, and Lufthansa are all fully private (or have small minority state ownership shares). For short-hop flights, Europe’s many budget airlines are dirt cheap and often have better amenities than American domestic carriers.

By the way, American Taxpayers, you are paying for me to fly to Qatar on Friday and thanks to the dumb Fly America act, I have to fly on United. Which means the ticket cost more AND my flight will be less comfortable. I hope you’re happy!

(ETA: OK it will probably be a BA codeshare, but still. Have you SEEN Qatar Airways’ ads??)

@stuffisthings رحلة سعيدة!

Air France has burned me once too often, and DeGaulle has overtaken O’Hare as my most hated airport.

deepomega (#22)

@stuffisthings My hunch is it’s the economics of short v. long flights. The longer the flight, the more things like fuel cost will drive down other amenities. (Until you hit SUPER long international flights, at which point there’s value in luxury)

@Sunny Schomaker@facebook Uggghhhh yes DeGaulle is THE WORST. I once waited in a 45-minute security line (of about 12 passengers), got to my gate, and realized there was NO BATHROOM inside the secure-gate area. O’Hare is by far the worst American airport I’ve been in, but DeGaulle definitely takes the cake as the worst ever for me.

megra (#2,906)

my mom works for United and having traveled almost exclusively on stand-by, being at the airport for hours is par for the course and I don’t mind sitting at a gate waiting. Of course, I am also flying for (almost) free. Even when I have paid, I think it just makes everyone’s lives easier to say “oh well!” and move on. After all, you can use this as another excuse, right? :)

Here is my mom’s personal favorite–she wishes this was played at the beginning of every flight:

Smallison (#155)

I don’t know about cheaper…I live in the Detroit Metro area, and flights from here are around $400, no matter what (unless you’re flying to Chicago, maybe). Maybe if you live near a busier air route, the prices wouldn’t be as bad, but I almost always consider driving before flying, because, often times, it’s cheaper. I would love to fly more, but I can’t afford to.

ThatJenn (#916)

@Smallison Yup, same problem here – I live 90 minutes from the nearest major airport with no public transportation to get there (so: add fuel and either parking costs or 6+ hours of karma for friends to flight costs), and while there’s a small airport near me, flights out of there rarely dip below $400 per person. With two of us to take everywhere, it’s often cheaper to drive.

deepomega (#22)

@Smallison 400 is still cheaper than inflation adjusted average flight costs in the 60s.

@deepomega Is it? Seriously, I am an airline geek, and a few months ago I was actually looking up exactly this stuff (ooh! how much did flights on Northwest cost in 1972 from Seattle to Minneapolis?!?) Maybe we’re looking at different time periods, but in the early 1970s, before deregulation, flights for non major city pairs (e.g. NYC-LAX) were not cheaper. Maybe they were already cheaper by then.

There wasn’t as much as difference in fares in the 1960s/70s. There were fewer fare classes, and fewer advanced purchase discounts, etc. You could walk up to the counter and buy a flight that wasn’t insanely priced, unlike today.

I was actually surprised, because I’ve always gone along with the story that airfares have decreased substantially. They have, in some markets. But for say a DSM-NYC flight, I think I’d prefer 1973.

deepomega (#22)

@angry little raincloud Can’t speak to DSM specifically, but the cost of a ticket from LA to NYC in 1964 was (according a pamphlet from American Airlines!) 145 each way. See here. Inflation adjusted, that’s over $1000 bucks. It’s unclear if that’s first class or not from the copy – but if I were writing that ad I’d definitely give the non-first class cost, and that number is close to what I was reading elsewhere.

And frankly if the price we have to pay to have flights that non-rich people can afford is that they get expensive if you walk up to the counter to buy them the day of the flight, I’m completely fine with it. (And more importantly, so is the proverbial market!)

@deepomega Yes, right, and I did mention that NYC-LAX (major pairs) has gone down significantly, like international flights.

And taking a shorter view, airfares have definitely going up, with crappier service. I can chart a steady increase in base fares (plus the added annoyance of baggage fees and fees for many things that were formerly included) on the city pairs I travel frequently, which are all basically captive to one major airline (so no competition from VX, Jet Blue, or Southwest). There are great deals for NYC-LAX, not so much for NYC-CLE. Flying from other podunk towns in the midwest (including places at risk for losing their air service entirely) is neither fun nor affordable.

The whole thing about flights being cheaper today isn’t true across the board. A lot of markets– especially if you are flying to smaller airports (random example: DSM)– are more expensive today than they were before deregulation, comparing base fares adjusted for inflation. Plus, before deregulation, a lot of things were included in the ticket price that no longer are (meals; luggage). This is especially true for last-minute fares. (I am basing this off of random threads on Flyertalk
and insomniac browsings of historical fare and route calculators.)

Prices for major markets (NYC-LAX) have gone down, but again, only on restricted tickets. What was fascinating to me when I looked at a bunch of comparisons of flight prices was that there wasn’t a huge difference between first class and economy tickets then, but there is now (although on a domestic airline, many people are getting upgrades comped based on elite status).

The one area where airfare is absolutely more affordable today than in the past was in the realm of transatlantic or transpacific flights.

Basically, we’ve given up a significant amount of comfort and even reliability (because load levels are so high, you can’t expect an empty seat on the next flight out, which leads to some of the incredible cascades of multi-day delays and horror stories when major weather events or snafus hit) for this myth of low fares.

Sorry, I am an obsessive reader of Flyertalk, although my travel has tapered off a lot (i.e., I no longer earn elite status on any airline, which makes flying much more miserable).

@angry little raincloud My dad wrote a book on this subject:

deepomega (#22)

@angry little raincloud I mean, sure, but even including fees they are WAY cheaper. See:

And per-mile costs are down 50%, too.

Complaining about “sacrificing comfort” makes me uncomfortable, because in this case it’s synonymous with “poor people can never take a flight.”

@KathleenD@twitter I need to read this!

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