There's little disagreement among travelers that flying today is neither comfortable nor convenient. But as I suggested in my last installment, there is a way to fix this. It won't be easy, but it is simple:
As a Jeffersonian who believes "The government is best which governs least", that's a difficult thing for me to say. But the airlines have shown little inclination to make things better for their customers without such intervention. And because air travel has become virtually indispensable in North America today, there's little outside incentive for airlines to improve. Re-regulation would provide that incentive.
Planes should be configured to fit their passengers, not the other way around.
Re-regulation should mandate that coach seats on passenger planes be at least 18" wide (currently, they're between 17" and 17.7" according to SeatGuru.com) and provide at least 35" of "legroom" which is actually the distance between the back of your seat and the back of the seat in front of you. Currently United's Economy Plus class provides 35" of room; most coach seats provide between 30-32".
Fares should be regulated.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, today's fares are well below what they were under the old Civil Aeronautics Board. When I was a kid, we'd regularly take summer trips from our home in Phoenix to visit the grandparents in Chicago. The round-trip fare then (1968) was $268.50 on my parents' airline of choice, American Airlines. Booking that same round-trip today for travel in June 2010 (according to AA.com) would cost $421.40.
Quite often, however, the total cost of the trip is markedly higher. Checking a bag? Add $20 each way. Two bags? Add $50 each way. Soon, your $421 ticket costs over $500. Add an in-flight snack and you could easily add another $10 each way, bringing the all-in cost to $541.40
Even at a modest 3% annual inflation rate, the ticket purchased in 1968 would be nearly $930 today. At 4% inflation, it would be nearly $1,400!
In current dollars, today's ticket prices are dramatically below what they used to be. If the airlines went back to an all-inclusive approach and raised the rates to include the services they're nickle-and-diming us for today, fares would still be a relative bargain.
Multiple-tiered pricing should be eliminated.
Under re-regulation, the all-in costs could be calculated and that amount divided by 70 percent of the seats on the plane. That could yield up to a 30 percent profit margin for full planes, and we all know how good the airlines have become at ensuring full flights.
Everyone who who buys their ticket at least seven days in advance would pay the same fare; last-minute travelers would pay a small premium.
Not being packed in like sardines and giving us a little food and beverage should go a long way toward making it a more pleasant travel experience, thus delivering additional value for the (slightly) higher fare.
Some final thoughts next time.
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