Air Travel Is Becoming More Affordable For The Average Consumer

Louis C.K. had a great bit a decade ago where he mocked complaints about air travel by pointing out how much better we have it than our ancestors did. New York – LA in six hours? It used to take 30 years. People would die. They’d be entirely different people by the time they arrived.

That’s actually true, and of course travel was too expensive to be within reach for most people. Three hundred years ago a 60 mile journey “would have cost an unskilled laborer more than a month’s wages just for the fare.”

In England it was calculated that one horse was needed for every mile of a journey on a well-maintained turnpike road. So, for the 185 miles from Manchester to London, 185 horses had to be kept stabled and fed to deal with the seventeen changes required by the stagecoaches which traveled the route. Those horses in turn required an army of coachmen, postillions, guards, grooms, ostlers and stable-boys to keep them running.

Here’s what an airline fare costs today in average hourly earnings from the St. Louis Fed, note that airfare is becoming more affordable. (HT: Marginal Revolution)

Airlines aren’t a monopoly. Airfares inclusive of fees have fallen. (If there’s a monopoly for the airline industry it’s with respect to their bargaining power vis-a-vis banks for co-brand credit card deals, not consumers.) Low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier have been driving down prices.

However innovation in the industry has been limited by government protection from new competition, largely through long-term gate leases and assignment of slots at congested airports.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The airlines is getting bigger and scheduling more seats, of course price should go down, population growth is just 0.75%.

  2. What kind of horses were standard for riding in England back then when a person would need 185 horses for one person’s 185 mile trip? Shetland ponies? And who was riding those ponies, a POS? 😀

    Travel of sorts is cheaper, faster and more affordable than it has been at various points in history, but it didn’t take 185 horses for most person to travel 185 miles most times.

  3. I am fed up with this nonsense and twisted, convoluted statements on the price of flying. Since the end of WWII flying has not been prohibitively expensive. I know: I’ve been paying for my own tickets a long, long time. Oh yes, some locations and some airlines and some seats, but holy cow the price of a can of peas or a roll of chicken wire has fluctuated, too.
    What has changed drastically is: #1. safety, #2. access to flights (Dallas to London?), #3. the size of planes, #4. an immensely larger middle class outside the USA and Canada, including a prosperous EU.
    At the same time, a savage capitalism has arisen that makes flying a miserable, nasty experience every single flight. The days of customer-focused flying are so utterly and savagely over that the whole experience, beginning to end is an battle of self-protection. It is loathsome to be ordered around, repeatedly met with contempt and have it communicated that you are an annoyance. Even with the best will in the world, and a transcendent attitude, airport cattle-herders are there to bark orders and tell mature adults what we are doing wrong.

    And that is in business class! Economy is like a crowded elevator for a far longer period. Except when elevators reach the intolerable, I step off and take the next one. Can’t do that with flying since airlines have rules/make laws very much like the American prison system.
    And the fares? Byzantine. Saving the $10 that everyone is supposedly so concerned about? Never happens since an extra fee or tax or up-charge invariably added on some way.
    It is especially absurd to compare flying with traveling by ox-cart. I would rather take a train any day. Oh, gee forgot how governments and airlines contributed to the elimination of those? Buses? Not so appealing since the quality has declined there a lot, though in other countries, I’m quite happy with them.
    But give it a rest about how cheap flying has become. That is 97% BS, with the same tortured, conditional legalistic provisos airlines have laid flyers for the past 20 years.

  4. 30 years to get from New York to Los Angeles? So even allowing for an incredibly convoluted land route, that’s still under a mile a day. Barring some crazy castaway tale, that seems wildly unlikely and not remotely the norm. Please leave the hyperbole to politicians.

  5. @Christian My thoughts exactly. If that’s a one way, I don’t think anyone could afford to do a round trip (or worse, mileage run!).

  6. @ Cassandra. Congratulations! I’ve been around many years and your inflation index based on chicken wire is a first. Thank you for the creativity.

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