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.
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.