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We're Fed Up

Air travelers in America, especially businessmen, suffer high prices, delays, rude service, bad food and unfair restrictions.

Shortly before 10 o'clock on the morning of April 26, United Airlines Flight 1631 left Denver bound for San Diego. UA 1631 carried businessmen and vacationers; military men in uniform and in sports shirts; a girls' softball team; and a teacher flying west to join her husband at his best friend's wedding. More than a hundred passengers, from octogenarians to infants. Every seat was full.
A flight number in the first paragraph of a magazine story can't help but be disturbing these days. Few of us have the stomach, much less the heart, for more gloom. Fortunately, UA 1631 would not end in tragedy, nor with any display of heroism by a passenger or crew member. It would not be involved in an international incident, or be featured in the next day's newspapers.
By those standards, the standards of September 11, it was a success.
But while UA 1631 ably fulfilled the basic mission of air travel-that is, to get the passenger from point A to point B safely and in a relatively timely fashion-such low expectations are an indication of how unpleasant flying has become.
Over the past two decades, travel on commercial airliners has deteriorated from an enjoyable experience to an endurance test. Passengers are herded and prodded like cattle, harangued and humiliated, stuffed into too-small seats with little room overhead for the single, size-restricted carry-on bag they're now allowed to take onboard.
Often, they're forced to change planes at an airport hundreds of miles from their intended destination. They're fed only pretzels or peanuts and soft drinks-glorified prison fare-on all but the longest flights.
And unless they were able to solidify their travel plans weeks in advance, or if their trip doesn't happen to include a Saturday night stay (as most business travel doesn't), the privilege of submitting to such treatment can cost as much as $1,000 each way.
No wonder business travelers are angry.
Yet at the same time that America's three biggest airlines-Delta Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines-are flying full planes and slicing service to the bone, they're managing to lose billions of dollars each year.
Delta, which lost $397 million last quarter alone, is considered to be the most stable of the three. It recently pioneered the imaginative cost-saving measure of denying travel agents sales commissions on all tickets, another example of the airlines undermining another passenger convenience.
United teeters on the brink of bankruptcy following a calamitous summer of union strife in 2000 and a failed merger attempt with US Airways last year. It has the highest cost structure of the big three. It spent 11.24 cents per mile in 2001 and lost $2.1 billion.
American paid chief executive officer Donald Carty $3.8 million in 2001. It recently tightened the rules for advance-purchase fares, hoping to add up to $200 per ticket in revenue and block its own nine-digit quarterly losses. In all, the U.S. airline industry bled $7 billion of red ink in 2001. Clearly some of those losses were related to September 11 but not all of them. It's expected to lose $11 billion this year.
Even the people who created the model for air travel as it exists today will tell you that it has gone badly wrong. Former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, who presided over the creation of frequent-flier programs, yield management and hubs during his 18-year tenure, recently told an air travel conference that an entirely new business paradigm was needed for the industry.
And Rono Dutta, the president of United's parent company, UAL, told The New York Times: "There is an overriding need to move to a simpler fare structure. People have a hard time making the purchase and feeling good about it."
Dutta needs to know that feeling good about the purchase is the least of it. What people really have a hard time feeling good about is the actual travel. That's because the economics of the industry, which equate profit with cost containment, have effectively eliminated service beyond the bare minimum. "Price is a more important factor than ever before," says Scott Kirby, the executive vice president for sales and marketing for America West. "When price becomes the most important issue, when you're selling a pure commodity, the company that wins is the lowest-cost producer. The most successful brand in the airline industry is Southwest, and the number one component of their brand is price."
Kirby's reference to a commodity is telling. What the airline industry is peddling now is essentially cargo transport for humans. Herd 'em in, move 'em out, dump 'em off. The airline experience has become generic. And since airlines match prices on most routes, what matters is merely which one flies the route you need.
"The consumer is primarily driven by price and schedule, and attempts to brand yourself differently are doomed to fail," Kirby says. "Who knows the difference between United, American and Delta? Move around their advertising tag lines, and no one would even notice."
In that sense, as in so many others, September 11 was the worst thing that could have happened to the business traveler.
Never mind the new security measures, the hour wait to get your carry-on examined, the inconsistent guidelines that force travelers to remove belts and shoes in one airport but let them sail through with a laptop packed away in another. The horror of that day significantly lowered the bar for travel in the United States and beyond.
Amenities had been declining for years, but September 11 gave airlines an excuse to do away with more of them and justify their actions as necessary. How else to explain a flight attendant who tells a Delta passenger that she should be thrilled with a two-hour wait on the tarmac in Atlanta because "at least the plane didn't crash"?
How else to explain the United ticketing agent who brusquely pushes aside a consumer inquiry about the suitability of a portable bassinet for a toddler by saying, "We can't worry about things like that anymore"?
Those are extreme cases, but the same attitude, a sort of institutional brusqueness, is easy to spot. You want food on a three-hour flight to Miami? You want the last passenger's garbage cleared away from your seat pocket? Hey, we're fighting terrorism here.
If you're over 40 and remember travel as it used to be, try to forget it. "I remember flights to California where you'd just eat your way through the entire flight," says Maureen Brady, the managing director for the Delta Shuttle and Delta Express, and formerly the head of customer service. "Those days are gone forever."
Cuts in service are bad enough for the leisure traveler, who liked to say that his vacation began the moment the plane left the ground. Now he's more likely to use the vacation to decompress from the stress of the trip there. But the business traveler, who might have to fly several times every week, finds his entire quality of life affected.
That aisle seat near the front of coach class is his place of business, an office he probably spends more time in than the one with his diploma on the wall. The lunch that used to be served but isn't anymore on the New York├▒Chicago flight might be the only meal he'd get before sunset on Mondays-and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, too.
The rudeness he encounters from a flight attendant when he tries to make one last call while the plane is still on the ground reminds him of how little his status as one of his airline's best customers really means. And the flights that are invariably full now because so many others have been eliminated only serve to ratchet up his stress, even as they put wear on the interiors of planes that airlines no longer have the money to refurbish.
"I think we have about as much room as in the Space Shuttle," says UA 1631 passenger in seat 10C. He's a Navy SEAL, flying home to his family after a training session in the Midwest. Not even the claustrophobia of a reclined seat in front of him can dim his smile. The woman in 10B doesn't really mind, either. She's wearing a tank top and sandals, carrying nothing but a paperback, traveling light on a supersaver fare.
But the businessman in 10A isn't happy. He has his computer out because his boss is expecting him to work during the flight. But how? With the seat in front of him reclined, the keyboard is pushed into his chest.
He only found out about this trip two days ago, so he couldn't get any of the advance-purchase fares. Without a Saturday night stay, he wouldn't have qualified for the cheapest of them, anyway. As the plane bumps over the Rockies, he grapples with a quandary. Is it worth staying alone in a hotel for two nights in a strange city, missing Friday night with his wife, Saturday morning with his kids and the hockey game Saturday night with his buddies, just to be able to hand his boss a travel invoice that won't make him turn blue with rage?
This time, fortune smiled on him. He was able to buy a round-trip seat for $684, which isn't bad in today's marketplace. (It's a good thing he didn't have to fly to Los Angeles instead, because he'd be paying $922 each way.)
And he can also fly back to Denver that evening. United still offers a range of flights on that route, unlike other carriers. Living in the middle of the country, he used to be able to access Dallas, St. Louis, Seattle and a dozen other major cities with one-day trips. But now that so many flights have been cut, he often finds himself finished by 5 o'clock but with no possibility of getting home until the morning.
He fingers his United Airlines Premier Executive card, the prize he earns for flying more than 50,000 paid miles on the carrier each year. He's one of the airline's most valued customers, he's told, yet he's paying three times more for this trip than the woman beside him, who has never been on a United flight in her life.
Think about that. He'll eat the same pretzels, struggle with the same tray table, fidget for the same elbow room, land at the same airport with the same chance of retrieving his checked luggage. Yet instead of $2 per minute, he'll be paying $6 per minute.
He calculates how long it would take to drive from Denver to San Diego, and for a few moments he entertains a fantasy involving Amtrak. And then, somewhere over western Colorado, he gives up. He has no real options. His schedule involves too much travel. Trains, cars and buses will never do.
The airlines have him.
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