A Freakonomics Contest: The Friendly Skies
I just flew down to LA from Seattle, and aside from a vicious battle of wills with my neighbor over possession of the armrest (ultimately won by me: a foolhardy reach for his drink was his Waterloo), I was pretty satisfied with my trip.
However, for most of us, air travel represents anything but a positive experience. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the airlines rank second-to-last in customer service out of 47 industry sectors. They are tied with the much-reviled subscription TV companies and come in even lower than the despised federal and local governments.
(The most unpopular industry of all: newspapers. Yeesh, we’re writing our hearts out for you and giving you our product for free. What else would you like us to do, pick up your drycleaning?)
In one sense, hatred of the airlines is ironic, given that fundamentally the air traveler has never had it better. By nearly all accounts, the deregulation of the industry starting in the late 1970s has been a smash success. Since that time, airfares have dropped by more than half in inflation-adjusted terms, most of which can probably be attributed directly to deregulation.
In addition to allowing airlines to set lower fares, deregulation has permitted them to operate more efficiently. For example, deregulation set off a rush to hub-and-spokes as opposed to point-to-point networks; hub-and-spokes generally allows airlines to keep planes more full, use the right sized plane for each route, and offer more choice to consumers.
(It should be noted, though, that point-to-point has its advantages, in terms of simplicity and cost. Thus it is still used on many routes, especially by lower-cost airlines. The industry is still working out just what the optimum combination of the two strategies is.)
In any event, scare stories about the evaporation of air service to small markets that was supposed to happen with deregulation have not come to pass.
There are other reasons life has never been better for the air traveler. The development of online price comparison shopping has put you the consumer in the driver’s seat, compared to the days when a travel agent booked your ticket, and you had no idea whether he really worked to give you the best fare or not.
Granted, our population has risen about 35 percent since 1978, but since that time the number of air passengers has doubled, indicating that fliers are doing well under the new system. And, in a way, the chronic financial ill-health of many of the airlines can be viewed as evidence of something positive. Airlines’ hops in and out of Chapter 11 may be disturbing for shareholders and employees, but they may also ultimately be evidence that you the customer are wringing the best possible deals out of the carriers.
On the other hand, deregulation has probably contributed to a decline in the flying experience, at least in certain respects. In the days before deregulation, fares were fixed, so the airlines competed not on price but on service. They provided elaborate meals and even vied with each other to employ the most attractive flight attendants. Planes were full of empty seats (before deregulation they ran at about 50 percent capacity, compared to about 80 percent today), giving you a strong chance of being able to stretch out and avoid armrest chess.
Today, all the competition is on ticket price, so many of the traditional frills are evaporating. Former freebies like meals, checked bags and – if Michael O’Leary of Ryanair has his way – bathroom trips are going the way of the biplane and pilots’ scarves and goggles, leaving customers plenty frustrated.
In a bid to allow you some much-needed release, as well as blacken the airlines’ names so that they’ll seize the most loathed industry ranking from us newspaper people, Freakonomics is going to give you a chance to vent about your air travel experiences and win a prize for it.
We’re now boarding all contestants for our next scheduled contest. Our destination: transportation hilarity, as you the readers regale us with your most memorable air travel stories – good, bad or just plain weird.
Terms and conditions: Post your tale here in the comments section. The story must have happened to you personally, not to a third party. Keep it under 200 words (there will be a $30 fee for oversized entries, waived for members of our Frequent Freak readers club).
I’ll narrow the field down to a group of semifinalists, based on writing style and the amusement value of your experience, then let you the readers vote on the most entertaining story. The winner will be awarded a complimentary ticket to Freakonomics schwag.
Cross-check and prepare for contest departure!