No, People Haven’t Stopped Flying Because Air Travel is Annoying. Why Do You Ask?

The Washington Post embarrassed itself with another Christoper Elliott column on Thursday.

Elliott contends that air travel has reached a breaking point, becoming so annoying that people aren’t flying anymore.

It’s no academic question for America’s airlines, who continue to provoke passengers with new fees, surcharges and rules. They want to know when passengers would rather stay home.

There’s no airline cabal to figure out just how far they can push passengers, and Elliott doesn’t cite a single airline or quote a single executive suggesting any support at all for this thesis. When I wrote an op-ed for USA Today, I had to provide citations for everything, when did the Washington Post stop requiring this?

The contention that passengers are walking away is silly of course because for the most recent month available, revenue passenger enplanements are up 5% year-over-year. There are more passengers, flying more miles than ever before. (Airline load factors are down because with lower fuel costs they’ve increased capacity faster than passengers have grown. American has also added seats to aircraft, but that’s not the driver as the absolute number of departures is up.)

Airline consumer complaints rose more than 20 percent for the first six months of the year, the Department of Transportation reported last week. From January to June 2015, the government received 9,542 consumer complaints, up from 7,935 received during the first six months of last year. DOT complaints typically represent a small fraction of total complaints.

The DOT received 1600 more complaints from consumers year-over-year, out of about 400 million enplanements during the six month period of time. I’m not sure what that would even tell us if it were a normal six months.

But the DOT received thousands of filings from consumers over United’s refusal to honor the Danish Kroner mistake fares. Not all of the 15,000 filings were treated as complaints, but this would appear to be a significant driver of the variance. Either way, the data doesn’t support a contention of things becoming obviously and materially worse in the skies.

At the same time, amid a government investigation into collusion, fare-watchers predict that air ticket prices will drop to record lows this fall because of lower fuel prices and, most important, decreased seasonal demand

This goes a long way to undermining Elliott’s case. Fares are falling. That’s clearly not a collusive environment (and fares began falling prior to the announcement of a government investigation). What’s more since about 80% of attempted price increases fail that alone suggests collusion isn’t occurring.

Fares are falling because lower fuel prices have driven competition, because ultra low cost carriers are growing, because the expiration of the Wright Amendment has meant more destinations served out of Dallas Love Field, and because of increased competition in places like Seattle (between Delta and Alaska). United, too, is adding capacity (replacing 757s) on many transatlantic routes. Plus, as mentioned earlier, American has added seats into planes since its US Airways merger (on average it had fewer seats on like-sized aircraft than competitors).

Elliott is dead wrong to focus on seasonality. This isn’t winter.

Crystal Stranger, an accountant from Honolulu, reached her breaking point when United Airlines — which she describes as “the worst airline ever for traveling with small children” — first charged for her checked stroller and then dinged her for overweight baggage as well.

“We had to take all our bags apart and re-pack” for being a couple of pounds beyond the limit, she remembers. “We were still charged an overweight baggage fee.”

Airlines had weight limits, and charged for overweight bags, even before they began charging for first (and second) checked bags. There’s nothing that supports a view that ‘things have changed’ or gotten worse from a single anecdote about being charged for overweight luggage.

Elliott goes on to talk about checked bag fee totals, and people hate paying for checked bags, but those policies aren’t new so it’s hard to see how those policies are just now causing people not to travel. Indeed, airlines are collecting more fees as more people travel.

He then shifts to complaints about Spirit and Frontier. Frontier has the gall to charge for coffee. And Spirit?

Spirit Airlines is also pushing the limits, at least for Taylor Murray. He recently booked a flight from Las Vegas to Denver on the discount carrier and was surprised at the airline’s fees, which seemed even more extreme than the ones you’d find on one of the major carriers.

For example, Spirit charges for carry-on bags, and if you want a reserved seat, you have to pay extra for it. For Murray, a sales manager for a Las Vegas call center software company, it felt like a bait-and-switch. He says Spirit offered a low fare but then added hidden fees.

The biggest challenge with ultra low cost carriers is matching consumers to product. There’s no surprise about what Spirit offers if you book on their website, they make their fees abundantly clear. Those fees aren’t a great match for business travelers expensing their trips.

And I don’t think it’s a good match for business travelers generally because Spirit is about using fees to get passengers to conform to the lowest cost behaviors, while business travelers seek convenience — and a route network that gives them the greatest chance of getting where they’re going even in the event of irregular operations, which is something the low cost carriers don’t maintain.

Of course not every airline product is a match for every consumer preference. Indeed that’s why airlines offer first class, and even Spirit offers their “Big Front Seat.”

That just means consumers discover airlines and offerings that are better matches for their needs — more leisure travelers fly Spirit, which makes air travel possible for families who might not have been able to fly otherwise; business travelers stay away they aren’t the target market.

Foley says he’s baffled by the way airlines gradually removed legroom and then tried to charge extra for it in an effort to profit. At some point, he figures, either the airlines will run out of things to charge for, or passengers will run out of things they’re willing to pay for. But for him, that time has already come. He refuses to fly Frontier no matter how low the fare.

Elliott’s consumer discovers that Frontier isn’t a good match for him. But he’s wrong that “airlines gradually removed legroom and then tried to charge extra for it.”

There are a few cases where one could make this argument — American added legroom throughout their planes (“More Room Throughout Coach”) but lost money doing it so returned to standard legroom. Then they added their extra legroom product.

United was the first major US airline to add legroom, and that’s really what they did when they introduced Economy Plus — they added legroom. It was three or four more inches than what was offered before.

To find a time when more legroom was the standard Elliott would have to go back more than 20 years. Is he really positing a 20 year conspiracy?

No one that understands air travel could write the article that the Washington Post published. No one could maintain intellectual honesty while crafting a narrative that people are on the verge of staying out of the air over the hassle. The piece’s thesis, I suppose, would best be summed up by the old Yogi Berra line that a place was “so busy nobody goes there anymore.”

Travel is confusing, it can be frustrating, but honest narratives matter.

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. One of my favorite “Yogi isms”, when trying to decide on a restaurant:
    “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

  2. Well, its getting pretty dangerous to fly with all the terrorism in the world today not to mention plane accidents.

  3. @ABC — As Gary as listed for you, you should learn your ABC’s before you spout off again.

    @Gary — The only thing more annoying that flying is reading about Elliott’s tantrums.

    I hope Bezos cuts his column.

  4. Yes, you’ve commented on Elliott before while he was here….

    BUT…would you have written “Boarding Area embarrasses itself again…” if the same Elliott piece had appeared here? Why is it embarrassing for the Post to publish an Elliott piece but not Boarding Area to host it?

  5. @Eric the Washington Post is one of the nation’s foremost newspapers and employs full time editors ostensibly for quality control purposes.

    BoardingArea is a blog hosting platform. I don’t think Blogger is embarrassed when people post pictures of their cat.

    I don’t think of BoardingArea in the same way as the Washington Post. Do you?

  6. Elliott can be incredibly annoying, but he taps into the resentment of the traveling public, and there is plenty to resent. But mouthing off just to blow off steam gets old after a while. Elliott does have one valuable function, which is to act as consumer advocate. He’s good at it, and so should just stick with that.

  7. Elliott has his preconceived notions, finds a couple of people for anecdotal quotes and calls it good. Actual research wouldn’t suit him. I guess WaPo considers his stuff editorial commentary, rather than news reporting, so doesn’t require much in the way of facts. Who knows why they consider his stuff worth publishing.

  8. @john I link to the data on air traffic in the post, I link to sources all the time, if there is something I wrote where you are skeptical about the veracity say so and explain why…

  9. Gary, nothing personal but just as USA Today wanted citations, as a general rule, I think they strengthen your argument and credibility and also give readers a place to look for additional information and to perhaps draw their own conclusions.. If its good enough for USA Today and the Washington Post, maybe it could also help VFTW and other bloggers as well.

    I agree with the vast majority of your post but, you criticize Elliot for saying that airlines have gradually reduced leg room and then charged extra for restoring it. That airlines have gradually crammed in more seats and gradually reduced legroom seems accurate to me. You disagree but didn’t offer any independent sources which is what I think you properly criticize Eliot for.

    Also, the assertion that fares are falling should be evidence of a non-collusive environment. Since fuel, which is a significant part of airline costs, has fallen by double digits percent, fares probably ought to be lower than they are. Also fares are lower overall, but isn’t this due more to the low cost carriers fares than big 3 fare decreases? Finally, I’d be interested in the source for concluding that 80% of fare increases are unsuccessful.

    To the extent information you rely on is publically available, it could be helpful for us. That is my suggestion for your consideration.

  10. Low cost carriers are absolutely one driver of lower fares, eg growth at DFW by Spirit. American shifted strategies to match those fares. There was discussion of this in American’s most recent earnings call. Delta has been in hot water in the news the past week and a half over the marketing of their basic economy fares. Those were designed to match Spirit. So not sure the claim that it is low cost carriers only with low fares. I do offer source in the piece for passenger traffic data. See the link above. I am taxiing on a flight and so not in a position to pull links for all of this. Next time USA Today publishes an oped I will certainly do that 🙂 but I frequently sprinkle links throughout my posts.

  11. American has added seats but that hasn’t meant a reduction in economy legroom it has come at the expense of the number of main cabin extra seats. American has also gone 10 across in their 777s. That reduces width… not legroom. Spirit offers far less pitch to be sure. And I suppose you could claim that is reduced compared to their older business model when they were based at Detroit City airport. But they haven’t shrunk pitch further while a LCC. You have to go back a long time to when major US airline pitch was greater than 31 inches in economy as a standard…

  12. Airfares are FALLING!?! In what sort of Pollyanna alternate universe do you live? January 2015 DFW to EDI = $1092. Same flight in January 2016 = $1434. Speaking about getting your facts right. Perhaps your viewpoint is jaded because you’re too busy reviewing first class flights on the company dime. Flying coach these days is an experience that would make Dante proud.

  13. Anyone who is truly an expert about airlines knows that the overall USA airline experience is actually getting a little better here. Not sure that the occasional flyer would notice it, but a very frequent flyer would. The reason is obvious: the airlines are making obscene amounts of money, and a small portion of that is flowing back to the customer experience. That’s why, for example, the food has become a little better at the airline lounges, and some modest improvements have been made in airline catering. We’re also getting more entertainment on board, some better website tools, and new aircraft.

    As far as demand goes, it’s really all about price. I’m sure that if I dropped airline fares 25% and increased capacity, I could increase demand 25%, too. That’s not the profit maximizing strategy for airlines, though.

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