Trapped in Transit: The Reality of Air Travel
Air Travel has not been a convenient or reliable way to travel for a long time, especially recently. Why is that?
If you are a frequent flyer like me, the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 has been a terrible time to walk into an airport. At the peak of the 2022 holiday season, weather delays led to a cascading sequence for Southwest Airlines, which canceled more than 2,500 flights (62% of the airline’s flights). Then, less than two weeks later, the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system suffered an outage. During this time, the airlines halted all domestic flight departures, causing delays for more than 9,500 flights and canceling more than 1,300.
Even if you are flying on a day without imminent disaster lurking in the wings (no pun intended), it always feels like a delay or cancellation is waiting to ruin your plans. There is merit to this feeling; delays have only increased in recent years, hitting their highest mark since 2014. Cancellations also hit a high mark last year at 2.57% (ignoring 2020, when cancellations jumped because people did not want to fly).
If my boss asked me for work and 20% of the time I turned it in late, and another 20% of the time I did not turn it in at all, I would not remain employed for very long. Yet, horrendous performance from our airlines continues with no consequences. These are the same airlines on which the government spent millions of dollars in taxpayer money to bail out during the pandemic. Let me add fuel to the fire by sharing that the airlines causing all of these headaches have a total monopoly over segments of air travel. I should also mention that the chance of an airline losing your luggage has never been higher. Many experts have recommended against checking bags, given the risk of the airline losing luggage temporarily or, even worse, permanently. Although it did not occur in the United States, in the middle of 2022, Heathrow airport experienced a baggage disaster, remember?
Flying is the best way to vacation somewhere these days, especially if you live in the United States and want to leave the country. The vast majority of the world for an avid US traveler is only accessible by plane. Your once-a-year vacation does not deserve to be hijacked by airlines that can’t manage to do the one thing for which they exist. So what’s the hold-up?
Monopoly: Four major carriers control 67% of the domestic travel market share, making the domestic airline industry in the US an oligopoly. The airlines that control air travel include American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and my enemy: United Airlines. Many domestic routes are controlled by a single airline. The right to fly specific domestic routes falls under “cabotage” laws. Essentially, the FAA chooses which airlines can operate flights within the country. This prevents competition from far superior (in every way) international airlines. When competition domestically is nonexistent, and the government blocks international competition, there is no need to improve services. Simply put: regardless of how mad you are about your delay, you will have no other airline options the next time you fly the same route.
Government Support: The profitability of airlines is questionable at best. Many make money by overcharging for checked bags. Some airlines operate like central banks, using and changing the value of their frequent flyer points and programs. Flying is necessary for any modern country, and the combination of high Union membership and manufacturing deals has made airlines “too important to fail.” The airlines know that when things get bad, the US government will come to their rescue. During Covid, the government paid $54 billion in airline bailouts and provided other benefits to airlines. The airlines paid employees to stay home, and airports received financial aid. Once again, when a company has no incentive to improve, it won’t try to improve.
Government lack of support for you: I had a friend who was delayed eight hours on a trip from NYC to Orlando. An eight-hour delay for a three-hour flight would call for an exceptionally generous compensation offer, especially since the delay had nothing to do with weather or other circumstances. The offer he got? A $200 flight credit only usable with the airline that just delayed him. This offer (and most others) are laughable. The FAA has no specific rules for airline customer compensation for extreme delays and cancellations. Instead, airlines must follow the Department of Transportation’s rules for things like denied boarding and flight cancellations. Even when a customer meets compensation conditions, the process is so complicated and time-consuming many do not bother. The point? The penalty that airlines have to pay for delaying or canceling flights is so minimal that they can essentially do these things at will.
These are just some of the many reasons US domestic airlines are just atrocious to utilize. Unfortunately, despite many recent public failures, the status quo will continue to hold. The FAA seems unwilling to make any significant changes regardless of administration and party affiliation of the transportation secretary (currently Pete Buttigieg). I am listing some of my recommendations for flying.
Don’t fly if you don’t have to do so. This is by far the best advice I can offer.
AirTag/Trackers. When you have to check luggage, use an AirTag or other tracking device so that when the airline loses your bag, you know where it is.
Fly early. Morning flights are less likely to be delayed and canceled.
Dress comfortably. When you do get delayed, make sure you are wearing clothes in which you will be comfortable.
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