Caught a plane recently? How was the flight? If you’re honest, it was probably a horrible experience.
The airports are packed to the rafters, even more than usual now that we are in the holiday season. The check-in desks are overwhelmed. The staff can be bossy and the rules ridiculous. The additional charges range from the baffling to the infuriating. Allocated seats have been abolished, along with the meals. It is hell 30,000ft above the ground.
There is no question that flying is a less pleasant experience than it was 30 years ago. Economists tell us that most products get better over time in a free market. The airlines have managed to rip up that rulebook. The question is whether other industries will follow the same path or whether the airlines will find a way to make flying fun again.
In the last decade, most carriers have stripped out just about everything that made flying a tolerable, sometimes even pleasurable experience. Cattle on the way to the abattoir receive better care than most passengers do on the new breed of budget airlines. The North Korean postal service probably knows more about putting the customer first than most airline staff.
People have noticed. Two of the biggest hits on the Internet this year have been from exasperated air travellers. There was a letter to Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd president Richard Branson complaining about the culinary journey of hell on a Virgin flight. UAL Corp.’s United Airlines unit was expertly dissected by a country singer aggrieved that the carrier had damaged his guitar. His song United Breaks Guitars has had almost five million views on YouTube.
Worse to come
The trouble is, it’s about to get much worse.
Ryanair Holdings Plc, the Irish budget airline that prides itself on not caring about service, is now thinking about charging to use the toilets. It is already getting rid of check-in desks, and the company plans to make passengers carry all their baggage onto the plane. They will probably get us to bring along a few litres of jet fuel pretty soon.
The Chinese carrier Spring Airlines is contemplating selling standing-only tickets to pack more people onto its planes, according to a report on MSNBC.
Even British Airways Plc, which used to boast about the quality of its service, is joining the rush down to cattle class. Last month, the airline said free meals were being abolished after 10am for flights of less than two-and-a-half hours duration. It won’t be long before they put you in your suitcase and charge you for breathing.
Cheap is best
On one level, we know what is happening. The no-frills, budget business model has triumphed. Passengers have shown they always take the cheapest possible flight, forcing all the airlines to cut costs drastically.
Flying used to be an exciting, glamorous event. When I was a kid, friendly flight attendants would take you up to the cockpit to have a chat with the pilot and see how it all worked. These days, they don’t even let parents sit next to their children unless the whole family runs like crazy onto the plane, elbowing aside everyone in front of them.
Of course, it’s true that flights are cheaper, and there are more of them. Yet, that isn’t quite the explanation.
In most industries, products are both cheaper and better. Computers are loads faster and cost less than they did 10 years ago. The same is true of cars and televisions, and just about any consumer product you can think of.
Nor do consumers normally opt for such a dramatic decline in quality even if they do get lower prices in return.
Think about what would happen if they did. We would all be staying in spartan hotels right next to the highway. Restaurants would be serving us ready-made meals from tins—awful but very cheap. The barber would just get out his sheep shears and give us a trim.
Only when it comes to air tickets have consumers decided that price is the sole thing that matters. The rational choice we make between price and quality in most other industries doesn’t matter.
Airports may be giving us a glimpse of the future. In 20 years’ time, perhaps every industry will be run on the Ryan-air model: drive down prices to the minimum and tell the customer to take a hike.
Alternatively, perhaps the airline industry is still in a period of transition from old state-run monopolies to a free market. That process has gone crazy, allowing companies a period of freedom in which they can be as rude to the customer as they like and get away with it. Over time, a better compromise between price and quality will emerge.
Something needs to be done about air travel. Otherwise we might be tempted to chuck ourselves from the emergency exit, even if there is an extra €10 charge for doing so.
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