Flying is cheap

Some of you aren't buying it, but even with those dreaded extra service fees, air travel is affordable

By Patrick Smith

Published August 12, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

finance concept. money plane over sky with clouds (Alexander Kalina)
finance concept. money plane over sky with clouds (Alexander Kalina)

I'm telling you that flying is cheap. That was the message of my July 27 column, in which I cited data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. According to BTS, the cost of the average airline ticket, adjusted for inflation, fell 21 percent between 2001 and 2010, despite soaring jet fuel costs.

This is fairly remarkable, I noted, in light of people's relentless hostility toward the airlines. "Say what you want about delays, airport security hassles, etc.," I wrote, "the fact is that flying remains astonishingly safe, mostly reliable and increasingly affordable." 

Well, that didn't go over so well.

"This article amounts to nothing more than a commercial for the airline industry," complained a reader. "... not only misleading but outrageous."

The primary point of complaint, brought up several times in the letters section, was my neglecting to account for those add-on fees that have become so popular: fees for checked luggage, fees for a bulkhead seat, buy-on-board food, and so on. In airline lingo, these supplemental fees are known as "unbundling."

"Bottom line is that it does not seem that airlines are lowering the cost of flying at all," posted one reader. "They are just moving the cost from base fare to additional fees."

But are they?

Last year, U.S. carriers reportedly earned $5.5 billion in extra service fees. That sounds like a lot, but only a fraction of passengers actually purchased these extras. Even if we spread the total among every single person who flew, it works out to only around $6 per passenger. In other words, supplemental fees do not come remotely close to closing the gap on that 21 percent. (And contrary to what several posters and emailers have contended, the BTS data does include fuel surcharges and taxes.)

And remember, this is all about the average fare. If you check three suitcases, opt for a particular seat, and purchase an $8 veggie wrap on your flight from Los Angeles to Miami, then sure, this particular ticket  might wind up costing more than it did 10 or 20 years ago. (Just as fares in certain markets, to and from certain cities, have indeed gone up. While many others, of course, have gone down.) 

As I've pointed out previously in this column, people feel nickel-and-dimed by unbundling, but it helps keep overall fares down by allowing people who desire certain extras -- those wishing to check a bag, make a reservation change, purchase an on-board snack, etc. -- to absorb a higher share of the cost. Those who don't want such things don't have to buy them. 

It's funny, because if fares today were equivalent to what they were in the days prior to deregulation, many of the same people who whine about unbundling would probably think it a great idea: "Hey, how about this: I don't check a bag, and you knock $50 off my ticket? And I don't need an in-flight meal, so how about another $10 for that?"

Am I changing your mind at all?

Probably not. To some extent this is a fruitless exercise. There is a segment of the population that simply will not accept anything positive when it comes to flying.

"I find those numbers hard to believe," voiced one reader. How do I respond to that? At a certain point this is like arguing religion or conspiracy theories.

Or how about this letter, from somebody using the moniker "TeslaCoil":

"Someone might ask Salon to address the question of having a paid employee of a major airline writing a column about air travel ... this kind of disingenuous shilling is on the same level with the old, 'cigarettes are good for you!'" 

Really? Is that the legacy of this column, nine years on: disingenuous shilling? And would it truly be better for Salon to pull the plug on me, leaving you to get your air travel insights from TV news?

And I love the equating of airlines with, of all entities, tobacco companies. I learned long ago to never underestimate people's contempt for airlines, but this is simply ridiculous. I realize that flying can be a less than pleasant experience. But it's reasonably dependable and, as I noted earlier, astonishingly safe. While a carrier might lose your suitcase or leave you stranded for the night in St. Louis, one thing it is all but certain not to do is get you injured or killed. Commercial flying has never been safer than it is right now, and the past 10 years have been the safest in aviation history. This hasn't been a fluke. It's safer because the industry, together with regulators and other concerned parties, made it that way. TeslaCoil's comment insults me, because I am an important part of the safety chain. I am sitting at the front end, doing the best I can to get you where you're going promptly and safely.

Writing for Salon, my intent has never been to excuse airlines for bad behavior. Any number of my past columns attest to this. I've given carriers their due over dirty planes, delays, poor communications and otherwise irresponsible customer service numerous times. But I'm also prone to pointing out the positive -- if for no other reason than doing so is virtually unheard of. For all of its hassles and inconveniences, global air travel remains an exciting, technologically remarkable realm that too many people take for granted.

And yeah, it's an affordable one too. Time again, maybe, to drag out that old American Airlines ticket coupon that I keep on a bookshelf here at home. A friend of mine found it in a flea market a few years back. It dates from 1946. That year, a man named James Connors paid $334 to fly each direction between Shannon, Ireland, and New York City. Using the Consumer Price Index conversion, that's equivalent to well over $3,000 today.

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Lastly, a nod to Nicola Clark, correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. Clark's Times story on the Air France 447 findings was one of those I singled out for ridicule in my column on Aug. 4.

In speaking with Ms. Clark, I've learned that most of what irked me about the story was the result of a poorly worded lede and some editorial cutting and trimming. Based in Paris, Clark has been covering the Air France mystery for more than two years, and has spent much time with the investigators. I would like to make it clear that her understanding of the recently published findings is considerably more complete and nuanced than readers -- mine and perhaps hers as well -- have been led to believe.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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