Buzz: Do Airlines Want Passengers to Suffer?

The author of a fascinating article in the New Yorker asks if airlines want passengers to suffer. One could respond with, “Define ‘suffer’,” but the point is we sometimes do fly like sardines and pay for many extras that used to be free.

Pay Fees to Avoid “Misery”?

Ah, fees; airlines keep adding them as JetBlue will for all checked-bags in 2015, leaving Southwest the only one still offering this particular freebie. The point being, airlines make billions of dollars from fees, so how can they resist? As the New Yorker’s Tim Wu puts it:

“In order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as ‘calculated misery.’ Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.”

He goes on to describe flying today as “an intolerable experience.” But is it?

Reality Check

Flying in coach is neither as roomy nor as easy an experience as it used to be, but as travel analyst and FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney points out, you can’t blame it all on the airlines. “The post-9/11 slump and the recession of 2008 led to bankruptcies and ultimately mergers-as-survival-tools,” said Seaney, “and this in turn led to a loss of competition which fuels lower prices.” Seaney adds, airlines now want to make as much money as they can now, since they’ve learned there’s no telling what the future could bring.

Good News: Flying is Not Just for the Rich

But it’s not all bad for passengers, and here’s why:

  • Flying remains relatively democratic; you do not have to be rich to fly.
  • It’s still the fastest way to get from one place to another.
  • Deals on air travel can still be found.

And you can find the deals by comparing airfares; by signing up by airfare alerts; by being flexible enough to fly during off-peak days (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays) or seasons. But you tell us: Is flying today intolerable?

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Published: December 29, 2014