Ask the Pilot

Tired of long delays? Look at the bright side of flying: It's cheaper and more accessible than ever.

Published August 17, 2007 10:35AM (EDT)

As the airlines announce their highest-ever load factors (percentage of seats sold), 2007 clocks in as the most delay-plagued year in aviation history. The past few months in particular have been excruciating, with bottlenecks victimizing tens of millions of fliers. The problem has not gone unnoticed by the media, major and minor. It seems that every last reporter and pundit, at every outlet from the Christian Science Monitor to National Public Radio, has run a feature story on the country's ever-worsening air traffic crisis.

Up to now these stories have mostly been missing the point, failing to show that the real culprit here isn't summer thunderstorms or faulty air traffic control equipment; it's the airline industry's obsession with pumping more and more airplanes -- particularly smaller regional jets (RJs) -- into an already saturated system. At long last, some of the coverage is getting it right. Namely, I refer you to Scott McCartney's excellent report, "Small Jets, More Trips Worsen Airport Delays," in the Aug. 13 edition of the Wall Street Journal. McCartney, author of the paper's "Middle Seat" business travel column, examines the airlines' untenable fixation with frequency. Even with a greater number of people flying than ever before, the size of the average aircraft has been shrinking. That means more takeoffs, more landings, more gridlock. The average jetliner now has 137 seats -- 23 fewer than it did five years ago. The use of RJs, which carry anywhere from 35 to 70 passengers, has increased nearly 200 percent in that span.

I've yet to read a better analysis on the subject, and I'm glad someone's finally taking notice of the problems with regional jets -- a topic I covered extensively back in June and mid-July.

But even if McCartney didn't send a thank-you card for the idea, it's refreshing to hear somebody cutting through the usual excuses for delays: Yeah, yeah, yeah, midsummer storms have been unusually severe and widespread; freeloading business jets are clogging up the skies; outdated air traffic control equipment can't handle the volume.

Don't get me wrong; there's a degree of merit to each of those things. The so-called Smart Skies initiative, for example, backed vociferously by the airlines and their trade groups, is a useful idea. Among provisions that would upgrade air traffic control procedures, it aims to avoid an increase on ticket taxes by requiring the country's rapidly growing fleet of private jets to contribute a higher share of funding to the ATC infrastructure. But in the end, this isn't about weather, it isn't about air traffic control, and it isn't about private planes. It's about the overuse of regional jets and the airlines' self-defeating belief that frequency of flights is the key to success.

Short of building newer and bigger airports, the only reasonable alternative is for airlines to consolidate flights and use larger planes. Alas, encouraging commuters to carpool does little to solve roadway congestion, and I'd expect about the same response from the airlines.

And you can't entirely blame them. After all, we're getting what we ask for. When airlines come around asking for opinions, their customers invariably answer yes, absolutely, they want and appreciate the opportunity to choose from no less than 35 daily departures between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Chicago and New York -- even if only a quarter of those flights are anywhere close to departing on time.

Until that consolidation pipe dream is fulfilled, here is one idea that, while it doesn't get to the root of the problem, might alleviate some of the pain whenever those thunderheads roll in and delays begin to mount: How about awarding "wheels-up" slot times based not on a flight's first-come, first-served position in the queue, as currently is the custom, but based on the aircraft's number of seats? The best way of getting 5,000 delayed people from city A to city B is to begin with whichever flights are carrying most of them, is it not? Some asterisks could apply, but as a rule the largest planes would be released first, RJs and turboprops last. A similar system could be put in place at airports like JFK, where even in good weather the evening departure push can be a nightmare. How about some swapping? Does a 747 bound for Tokyo with 430 people on board need to stand in line for 45 minutes so that a flock of RJs can be launched toward Washington, Albany, N.Y., and Burlington, Vt.? Just a thought.

And here's a recommendation for passengers: Learn the system. Fliers need to realize, for instance, that allowing themselves only 90 minutes for a domestic-to-international (or vice versa) connection can be a recipe for trouble. Be wary of so-called minimum connecting times stipulated by airlines. They might be legal, but they aren't always practical, especially during peak hours (see JFK, above), or if you need to change terminals.

Another thing to try is readjusting your perspective. Believe it or not, there's a bright side to this mess. Allow me to be the first, and probably the last, columnist in America to suggest that even as you're wedged into a tiny seat next to a screaming infant, with a Chick-fil-A sandwich hardening in your stomach, there's plenty to be thankful for.

What I mean, of course, is that we have lost an appreciation for just how cheap and accessible flying has become. The fact that for a few pennies per mile we have the ability to zip ourselves halfway across the country, or halfway around the world, in a matter of hours, in nearly absolute safety, is almost entirely taken for granted. Regardless of whether you're a biased romantic like me or a semi-occasional traveler who wouldn't know a 747 from a fire hydrant, that's just wrong.

Let's look at airfares for a minute. Whenever people moan about the cost of flying, I think of that old American Airlines ticket that sits on my bookshelf. It's a flea market find, and it dates from 1946. That year, somebody named James Connors paid $334 to fly one-way from Ireland to New York -- roughly the same that you'd pay on Aer Lingus today. Using the Consumer Price Index conversion, that $334 is equivalent to well over $3,500 in 2007.

The real cost of air travel -- the price of a ticket adjusted for inflation -- has fallen sharply over the past 20 years, even with tremendous surges in the cost of oil. According to the Air Transport Association, fares in 2006 averaged 12 percent lower than what they were in 2000, in spite of a 150 percent rise in jet fuel costs. Long after deregulation, fares have continued to drop as airlines have worked to squeeze cost from their product. Amenities and customer service aren't what they used to be -- on the whole they're acceptable, and of late they've been improving -- but what do you expect from carriers whose per-mile profit margins are sometimes a penny or less? Airlines sell what people claim to want. And if you read the surveys, even more than wanting lots and lots of flights to pick from, people want tickets at rock-bottom fares.

(So you might ask, what's to stop an upstart from coming onto the scene offering slightly higher fares and slightly improved service, for those of us who are willing to pay for it. Lots of things. It's a model doomed to fail. Bear in mind that competitors like JetBlue have been selling better service at lower fares, and even they have trouble staying afloat.)

Next consider routes. On the domestic front, you can fly between almost any two airports in America with, at worst, a single stopover. A few decades ago, that one-stop trip from Tucson, Ariz., to Bangor, Maine, would have entailed awkward transfers through two, three or maybe four other cities. Internationally, transoceanic routes have fragmented, allowing people to fly direct from many smaller U.S. hubs to points in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Nobody enjoys holding patterns or sitting on a tarmac, but in earlier days the overall journey would have been longer -- not to mention pricier.

And another nice change to savor, the next time you're turning lazy circles over a holding fix: The person next to you might be ugly, and he might not stop talking, but at least he isn't smoking.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business Travel