Guest column: Fleeing the surly skies
April 16, 2017
Five years ago I elected to stop flying, at least for non-business trips.
I made that decision largely for environmental reasons. A single jet flight can wipe out all the contributions our plug-in/hybrid car and solar panels make toward reducing my annual carbon footprint.
But there were personal reasons, too. My airline experiences pale in comparison to the United Airlines passenger who was "reaccommodated" recently by being bloodied and dragged from a plane. Still, the last two business flights I took turned out to be aversion therapy underscoring my resolution to avoid "pleasure" flights.
It's a big change for me; I was once a globetrotter. My passport carries stamps from 36 countries, and neither of those recent business flights ranks as my worst. That distinction goes to a 1978 Aeroflot jaunt from Moscow to Kiev: The "decadent" novel I was reading was confiscated. I had to hold myself upright because my seat back collapsed entirely. And for the entire turbulent two-hour flight, a passenger's vomit remained untouched in the aisle.
But Aeroflot was an anomaly. I flew dozens of different airlines during the 1970s, enjoying nearly all my travels. What's more, during grad school in Chicago, I earned freelance money by writing travel brochures, ironically enough, for United Airlines. I was treated well, and I was honestly able to extol the virtues of flying to Hawaii to surf or jetting to Colorado for a ski vacation. Back then, I believed in "flying for pleasure."
But the thrill has gone.
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Not coincidentally, my fond memories date from prior to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Deregulation occurred in stages through 1984, lowering overall fares about 25 percent (adjusted for inflation). As a result, rural areas and small airports suffered high fares and infrequent flights, while large, urban hubs experienced the reverse. Cheaper fares roughly doubled the number of people who could afford to fly.
Deregulation also led to an airline shakeout. Today, four major airlines — United, Delta, American and Southwest — account for roughly 80 percent of domestic air travel.
In the ’70s, planes flew about half-full. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the airplane "load factor" for 2016 was 82.76 percent. Domestic airlines now enjoy record profits, both because they're carrying more passengers and because they've learned to manage what has become a price-sensitive commodity. Their business tactics include variable fares, charging for everything from extra bags and headphones to bottled water, and overbooking to ensure full planes.
Despite widespread grousing from consumers who dislike nickel-and-diming, bumping and crowding, the industry is sure that these aggravations, like the flurry of bad publicity surrounding musician Dave Carroll's 2008 YouTube video "United Breaks Guitars," won't impact consumer behavior for long.
I won't easily forget Dr. Dau's shrieks; I had to turn off the sound to even watch that video. But all the airlines are pretty sure that travelers forget; experience shows that passengers will opt for airline X's $199 fare over airline Y's $200 fare in a month or so, despite today's uncomfortable experiences or negative publicity.
My own airline travails pale in comparison to Dau's, but they have contributed to me opting out of the surly skies entirely. Next month, my husband and I are making a business trip to San Francisco, and we're traveling on Amtrak.
Environmentally, that's a good choice. If we flew the round trip, we'd produce .8 tons of greenhouse emissions. Our plug-in electric/hybrid Chevy Volt, which has achieved a lifetime fuel average of 76 mph over 25,727 miles, would generate .24 tons of carbon. Our train trip will generate about .08 tons of greenhouse emissions.
Of course, the 26-hour rail trip takes longer than flying.
Then again, maybe not so much.
On my last San Francisco trip, I was bumped from seven planes on two airlines and made three trips through security. While American treated me far better than United treated Dr. Dau, my trip did feature a screaming match. After American bumped us from its fourth plane, workers informed us that they had no more flights. We would need to "come back tomorrow."
I angrily responded that abandoning my 83-year-old husband overnight in the terminal without luggage was not an option. After a heated, hour-long exchange, the gate agent finally walked us to another terminal and onto another airline.
Because that plane was late, we missed connections. All told, it took us 19 hours to get home from San Francisco. (Not counting a drive back to Aspen a couple days later to retrieve our lost luggage, which had taken a trip to Dallas.)
So this time, I will be missing the excitement of air travel. But probably not much.
Nicolette Toussaint is a freelance writer.