A Freakonomics Contest: The Friendly Skies

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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!

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COMMENTS: 91

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  1. Really. says:

    I once enjoyed a flight, back in the Seventies.

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  2. Kevin says:

    A few years ago, I was on a trip home from Tuscon via Chicago. Once we landed in Chicago, much of the passengers turned-over, yet it was the connecting flight for me. The women who sat behind me was a very interesting character.

    After the seat-belt sign was turned off, I reclined my chair. For the next 30 minutes or so, it became a battle of her kicking or pushing my seat forward and me reclining it again. I finally turn to her and asked her to stop kicking my chair to which she responded that there was no room for me on her lap. Once I explained that due to a back issue, I needed to have the seat reclined during the flight and then reclining my seat, so seemed to acquiesce.

    Then the real surprise: She started to spray Binaca in my hair as retaliation. At this point, I decided that a little help from the Flight Attendant would be helpful, so I pressed my call signal. Her husband helped to diffuse the situation by asking to act reasonably. The remainder of the flight was uneventful.

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  3. Brian says:

    On a flight from SFO to Kona, my girlfriend’s seat did not recline we asked the flight attendant about it while we were still on the ground. Her response, “I will put it in my report” and quickly walked away. What does that mean? Before doing the gentlemanly thing and switching seats with my girlfriend, we asked on more flight attendant who knew a ‘trick’ to get it working again…

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  4. Ron L. says:

    My best flight was probably a Thai Airways flight from Italy in 2008. It was during a school trip. On the last day of the trip, I had a fever and nose bleeding. Because I had seen an airport doctor before the flight (expensive, but thankfully, the insurance company footed the bill), and he gave me a medical certificate, the stewardess allowed me to grab the middle section of a row in Economy Class at no extra charge – 3 seats! Best flight ever – I could lie down and sleep in comfort for the full 10hrs.

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  5. kevmo says:

    4 day romantic getaway to Mexico connecting through LAX. First flight delayed, but barely on time for connector. Too bad connector was overbooked. Told to hang out at the airport, because they would find us a flight later that day. Didn’t happen. Put us up in an airport hotel and told to come back at 5:30 next morning. Did so and were told that flight overbooked again. We asked to just fly home, but they said, wait a minute, if we get you to Phoenix you can catch a connector to Mexico from there. Got to Phoenix, talked to ticket agents who said no chance of catching a flight that day to Mexico, we’d be best to go back to LA. Asked just to go home, but were told no seats available. Went to LA waited for a day and a half and finally caught our our original return connector home. Flights: $862. Airport restaurant food: $359. Memories of romantic getaway: worthless.

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  6. Bart Monson says:

    My wife and I were flying to Ecuador on our honeymoon. Confirmed our flights the day before, show up at the airport at 10am the next day. We walk up to the counter, present our passports and the desk agent says to me “We have you confirmed, but we show your wife flying out tomorrow.” Me: “No. We’re both flying out today. We confirmed our flights yesterday” Agent: “The system shows that you made a change yesterday evening. You changed your wife’s flight to tomorrow” Me: “No. We didn’t change her flight to tomorrow. It’s our honeymoon. We are travelling together. We have boats to catch, hotel rooms booked…” Agent: “You definitely made a change… Or, somebody, made a change…” Me: “Probably somebody wearing a Delta nametag…” Agent: “No. The system says you did it.” Me: “I must have just forgot that I changed my wife’s flight for our honeymoon trip to a different day.” Agent: no reaction. Me: “I know! Let’s get my wife back on the flight for today so that we can proceed with our honeymoon!” Agent: “This flight is oversold, she can stand-by but it does not look like she will get on the plane. Do you still want to fly today?” Me: “Yes. I will go on the honeymoon alone. She will stay here, divorce me and marry someone who would never go on a honeymoon without her.” The situation escalated, my wife and I howled in outrage, supervisors were summoned, real or perhaps spurious phone calls were placed, much typing ensued, but nothing got us on our flight. We headed back home, still fuming, to re-arrange our travel plans in Ecuador. We flew out the next day, were super-nasty to anyone and everyone wearing a Delta nametag, and bad mouthed the airline non-stop. This was 3 years ago, I am still mad about it, and the worst thing is this: Delta has never admitted that someone on their end just bumped my wife off our flight. After numerous calls and letters, they still claim we actually changed my wife’s flight, our flight to begin our honeymoon, to the next day.

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  7. Mike B says:

    Did you notice the contradiction in your post there? You said that consumers hate airlines, but, in essence, we have never had it better based solely on all of the economic measures of well being, namely ticket price and efficiency of operations. Perhaps one should admit that what was gained by the consumer in terms of ticket price and service frequency, was taken away by the lack of customer services possibly resulting in a net loss of utility.

    Perhaps the regulated, collusive market was better for everybody. Cheap food makes us fat, Chinese goods fill our houses with clutter and deregulated airfares make travel a miserable experience. Perhaps more of a bad thing is inferior to less of a good thing. It would be nice to put the question to a referendum where people were given the choice to have the lowest fares rise 50% if they could be guaranteed a positive flying experience with no BS.

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  8. Joe says:

    Flew from DC to Florida to board a cruise for my honeymoon. My wife and I had four bags between us because it was an 11 day cruise and there were several formal nights. Fight down, no problems what-so-ever. 11 days later on returning we are told by a surly airport check in lady that “You can’t fly with that much luggage”… what are we supposed to do, leave it there? Two different counters, six airport staff and $40 per bag later we board to fly home. 11 days of relaxing immediately wiped away by flying stress and one airline that is never getting our business again.

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