Q TRAVEL (By François Shalom on 02.20.2013) MONTREAL – Imagine. “Back then, your holiday started when you got to the airport,” recalls longtime travel agent Marcelle Jarry. “Then you got on the plane — Air France, or whatever, to Paris — and you got a great meal. It was fun, you looked forward to it.”
Even a masochist might balk at calling today’s airport experience the start of festivities.
As for fine dining, well … enough said.
Anyone over a certain age remembers the excitement of flying in the 1960s and 1970s, even into the ’80s, the mystique of foreign travel, a glamorous time when getting there really was half the fun. That short-lived period followed the golden era when only film stars and presidents took airplanes and preceded today’s mass people-mover system.Two principal factors changed air travel fundamentally since U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s administration deregulated the airline industry in 1978: loosened restrictions opened up hundreds of new markets beyond the few key hubs like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; and the proliferation of low-cost carriers, including Calgary’s WestJet Airlines Ltd., largely based on the pioneering SouthWest Airlines model that had preceded deregulation.
Two principal factors changed air travel fundamentally since U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s administration deregulated the airline industry in 1978: loosened restrictions opened up hundreds of new markets beyond the few key hubs like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; and the proliferation of low-cost carriers, including Calgary’s WestJet Airlines Ltd., largely based on the pioneering SouthWest Airlines model that had preceded deregulation.
Those factors might have put an end to the elitist sense of travel, but made it possible for millions more to see the world.
Yesteryear’s elegant aura persists in some measure for first-class passengers, of course.
But even the chosen few must also shuffle through the painful gauntlet to get to the actual aircraft and endure the delays that peons do.
Many people lash out at airlines for all this — unfairly. Carriers are merely in the front line of saturated airports and are the easiest target of travellers’ anger and frustration.
Airlines — or airports, for that matter — are not to blame for all of the cattle-round-up experience of flying. Most of the shuffle-here-then-shuffle-there-and-take-that-off-and-take-that-computer-out-and-dump-that-bottle-and-put-your-arms-up indignities that begin when you set foot in an airport are mandated by government security, so directing your simmering resentment at the carrier and airport is misplaced.
It’s quite fair, on the other hand, to call out airlines for any number of irritants and outrages, primarily for nickel-and-diming passengers to their fuse-blowing limits. Or for the sardine seating; or fees for paying with a credit card; or exorbitant sums for overweight baggage; or a booking fee; or a surcharge for infants under 2; or the demand to cough up more cash at the gate for the privilege of sitting with your wife or son; or charging more than the original fare just for changing a reservation by 24 hours; or the “accidental” overbookings; or the occasional rude-as-can-possibly-be staffer. Etc., etc.
One mitigating factor when tempted to pine too hard for the good ol’ days, however, is safety. Air travel is extraordinarily safer today than it was then — and keeps racking up impressive gains almost on a yearly basis. More about that later (Part 2 of this series will appear in The Gazette next Saturday), but a quick preview of the astonishing improvements in safety: 2012 was the safest year in aviation history, noted Paul Hayes, director of air safety and insurance for Ascend, a FlightGlobal advisory service, with one fatality per 9.9 million passengers carried. That’s better than 2011, which was the previous best year. And the 2012 performance is about 100 times better than in the 1950s — an amazing feat, considering the huge increase in the number of aircraft flying. If the fatality rate of the 1950s persisted today, about 36,000 people would die on airplanes annually — rather than the actual 382 people last year, out of about 2.5 billion flyers.
From the NYTimes: There Was No ‘Golden Age’ Of Air Travel
Safety and security aside, how much has air travel changed since the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s?
Let us count the ways.
The sudden discovery by airlines a few years back that passengers travelling to another continent liked to bring luggage with them is a good place to start.
Carriers deemed that practice unacceptable unless it’s taxed.
Rare is the airline now that doesn’t impose a baggage fee, said Robert Mark, a marketing executive, former air-traffic controller and pilot who publishes Jetwhine.com on all matters aviation, as if taking a bag or two thousands of kilometres away is a luxury, a last-minute decision that was not planned or already paid for when you bought your ticket.
Mark adds the quasi-impossibility of actually booking a seat on your desired date for a reasonable number of your loyalty program points.
Dan Hagedorn, the curator and resident historian at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, marvelled at how, contrary to popular belief, the airline business has become exceptionally reliable, much more so than in the 1960s and 1970s.
With great improvements in aircraft and engines, “getting from Point A to Point B is no longer an issue,” Hagedorn said. “Barring catastrophic weather, it’s utterly predictable. Oddly, the experience passengers are having today is a direct reflection of that. Commercial airlines have become so successful, so mundane, if you will, compared to the way it used to be, that now it’s simply another form of transportation, like trains or buses. It’s not special anymore, not glamorous.”
One perhaps not-always-welcome result is that “everbody can now walk on the plane in Florida wearing flip-flops or a bikini.”
Hagedorn cites other egregious “abuses and outrages” that have surfaced recently; charging — or trying to — to sit together, and the attempt by some airlines to stick astute web-surfers savvy enough to get a super-cheap fare online with a surprise surcharge at the gate, or else, they don’t get on board — a penalty of sorts for obtaining a real low fare.
“You’re already in economy,” he said, “way back in cattle class, and they want to tax you some more? I can’t imagine what other indignity they could inflict.”
Some airlines, including Air Canada, have already travelled “partway down that road,” said Hagedorn, “by going to this there-is-no-guaranteed-seating policy, which says ‘We sold you this ticket and told you at the time we could get you on the airplane (together) but you get there and we may not — and we may have oversold the airplane.’ ”
Where this will all end, you might ask? Why not charge to use the toilets while they’re at it? Well, you’d be late. One airline, Ireland-based Ryanair, is already planning that.
Michael O’Leary, the discount carrier’s founder and president, suggested that in 2010, quickly backing off after a fierce blowback of derision. But the airline later revived the issue, this time for real, planning to charge to use the loo. The laughable rationale from the company? Ryanair spokesperson Stephen McNamara told Britain’s Daily Mail that “by charging for the toilets we are hoping to change passenger behaviour so that they use the bathroom before or after the flight.”
What, no oxygen fee? Actually, Ryanair charges for that, too — 100 British pounds, about $160, for a medical cylinder of oxygen. Air Canada and WestJet allow passengers to bring their own cylinders.
Despite all the charges and fees designed to offset rising fuel prices, added Mark, “the great irony is that airlines as a group are incapable of making money for more than a few years at a time. They’ve lost more money in the aggregate over the last 30 years than they’ve made. And their planes are stuffed. What kind of business model is that?”
In a complaint familiar to Aeroplan members, Mark, a Chicago resident, pointed to a recent attempt to fly with his daughter to Boston on his preferred carrier, American Airlines, using his AAdvantage points.
“I had 110,000 miles on AA, but it was 125,000 points per ticket for Chicago-Boston — and get this, we had to go though Dallas. This is how you reward your customers?”
“You tell me you’re giving me something for free. First, we all know it’s not free, and then you pour a little more salt into the wound. This is why, as time goes by, people are defecting (to low-cost airlines).”
Hence the popularity of Southwest Airlines and its Canadian counterpart WestJet, “which does not go out of its way to block your request for a flight at the advertised number of frequent-flyer points,” said Mark, or charge an exorbitant number of points.
“Southwest says ‘We got two seats for Chicago-Boston. You want’em? Boom, they’re yours.’ No restrictions, no blackout date.”
But even Southwest’s seating policy is under fire. You’re assigned Group A, B or C — not a specific seat — which means that if you’re in Group A, you’re fairly certain of getting either a window or an aisle. But those in Group C, the last called to board the aircraft, are conversely almost sure to get the dreaded middle seat on Southwest’s all-B737 fleet.
And not all discount carriers are equal.
In fact, you can lay a lot of airlines’ nickel-and-diming to death at the feet of Ryanair, generally acknowledged to have pioneered the practice — and pushed it to extremes.
How extreme? The airline requires passengers to print their own boarding passes. One woman last year was unable to do so as her family was vacationing in a rural area in Spain. When she got to the airport, the ticket agent charged her $390 to print a few boarding passes. Was O’Leary apologetic when the ensuing media firestorm broke out? Not exactly. He called her “stupid” and said passengers who did that were “idiots.”
Florida’s Spirit Airlines, which is trying to woo Montrealers to its Plattsburgh flights, is, so far, one of the few to emulate Ryanair in that regard. It charges a more timid $5 to print boarding passes at the counter.
Hagedorn said that “the supremely ironic thing to me is that the overwhelming majority of fliers have accepted all this.”
“Yes, the nickel-and-diming is really ridiculous. But there’s not a corresponding level of outrage that will change this. They’re not voting with their feet by switching to trains or, God help us, buses. The flying public bears part of the responsibility for this because they endure it. And that, incidentally, is what flying is all about these days — enduring.”
“I think this will continue as long as the airlines feel they can get away with it.”
“If the travelling public finally reaches the point where they say ‘enough, we’re just not going to take this anymore’ in sufficient numbers, things might change. But I’m not sure we have the cohesion to do that. Business-class associations have made some progress, but it’s up to the rest of the folks back in cattle class who need to get organized. Because doggone it, it’s ruining a fantastic experience.”
Things are not likely to get easier or better soon as many more of Earth’s 7 billion people take to the skies, especially in Asia.
There are discussions and meetings at Montreal’s International Civil Aviation Organization to streamline the airport process with security corridors based on individual risk assessment rather than a one-size-fits-all where everyone is presumed to be a terrorist — not to mention the loss of basic rights and freedoms once you step inside an airport. But there are sharp disagreements with other stakeholders — airlines, airports and intelligence agencies, for instance — on what steps must be taken to alleviate the painful experience. The United Nations body must also forge an agreement among nearly 200 nations — and getting, say, Iran and Israel on the same page will require some doing.
Hagedorn said the nostalgia for the days of yore may be primarily an old fogey thing. But younger people may eventually come to feel the same, he predicted.
“Those of us old enough to remember the old days, we’re the ones who complain the most frequently — ‘gee whiz, why do we have to go through this?’ We flew around everywhere quite safely in the ’60s and ’70s, and we enjoyed it and it was an exciting thing to look forward to — we told the whole family about it, and they came to the airport to see us off.”
“People who started flying since 9/11, though, know no other world.
“But there are unintended long-term consequences to all this, to the detriment of airlines.”
Young people’s fascination with airplanes will wane and now-docile fliers could demand better trains, as they did in Europe — killing formerly heavily-flown air shuttles like Paris-Brussels to the benefit of high-speed trains.
“That little boy who used to go out to the chain-link fence and watch airplanes?” said Hagedorn. “They’re going to run him off.”