Tuesday, April 22, 2008
I enjoyed this letter I read in April's Outside magazine:
An Open Letter to the Air-Travel Industry
By Jason Daley
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
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