An Open Letter to the Air-Travel Industry

An Open Letter to the Air-Travel Industry

Mar 21, 2008
Outside Magazine

Dear Airlines,

So things got tough a few years ago—jet-fuel prices skyrocketed, low-cost carriers put the squeeze on, profits nose-dived. You had to make big changes. We understood, we gave you space. And in spite of what your many, many critics say, you actually got a few things right. Tickets now cost some 30 percent less than they did in 1980. We can go between just about any two cities on earth in less than 24 hours, an achievement arguably as momentous as the advent of the Internet. And for more than six years, U.S. carriers haven't logged one significant crash.

But when it comes time to board, cheap tickets and global shrinkage just can't compensate for the pain you inflict. Cramped seats, trashed interiors, lost baggage, and long delays—flying these days is about as comfortable as rotator-cuff surgery. Greyhound offers better service than you. Consider:

1. You're filthy. Since 2001, passenger volume has increased 18 percent, but airlines have dropped 86,000 employees. That means fewer hands to pull Cinnabon wrappers from seat-back pockets. In early 2006, Delta was caught detailing its squalid planes every 15 to 18 months instead of the industry standard of every 30 days.

2. You lose our stuff. Last year, passengers reported 4.4 million mishandled bags—more than double the number five years ago.

3. Your seats are cramped. The seat pitch on planes—the all-important distance between rows—averages a meager 31 inches, with some knee-crushers as tight as 29 inches.

4. We're hungry. While United touts celebrity-chef-designed meals in first class, last year the airline cut out snacks in coach on flights under two hours. This pretzel-pinching saved a reported $650,000—less than a day's profit.

5. You're late. Granted, this isn't all your fault. An ailing air-traffic-control system has led to the second-worst year ever for delays, with 23 percent of flights taking off late in 2007. But your decision to shoehorn two million extra flights into the air over the past decade hasn't helped. (Only 13 new runways have been built in the same period.) Pilots are in short supply, too. Many have abandoned U.S. carriers for lucrative foreign gigs. Aviation Information Resources, a pilot headhunter, says you need 20,000 new pilots by 2009. Good luck with that.

The lack of pillows; the $2 headsets that don't work—we could go on. But, instead, here's some advice: Stop trying to be Southwest. Your sloppy attempt at stripped-down service has turned you into something more like the Titanic, with steerage-class coach passengers drowning with the rats while first class gets lie-flat seats and on-demand movies in their lifeboats.

Why not try for something in the middle? If you make flying more like vegging out on the couch, we can forgive the occasional delay. Low-cost upstarts like JetBlue and Frontier offer seat-back satellite TV. Heck, they'll even give you an entire can of Coke. And brand-new Virgin America has introduced a shockingly profitable and comfortable model—complete with leather seats and real food—that comes at a reasonable price. As CEO David Cush puts it, "If you put a good product out there, people may actually be willing to pay a few dollars more."

Who knows—a few solid upgrades might even help your billion-dollar bottom line. So, Delta, I say to you: Clean your planes. American? Reinvest that $375,000 per year you've saved by scrapping pillows. All of you, start thinking about bigger projects like Wi-Fi, recently greenlighted by the FAA, and maybe—no, definitely—give us another inch or two of legroom.

Because here's the bottom line. At the rate things are going, it won't be long before low-cost airlines will offer a better experience than so-called legacy carriers. In a little more than a decade, the cheapos have increased their market share by 16 percent. If you don't change, well, you might not even be around to regret taking away our pillows. And when you do go belly-up, we'll be watching it live on our seat-back TVs.


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