Top 10 Reasons to hate the airlines
1. The Hub System
Deregulation in 1978 ended the era of fixed prices and opened up the skies to a host of upstart competitors. The major carriers, in response, were forced to look for ways to protect their turf. One of the chief ways was to consolidate their routes around certain hub airports. That made for more efficiency, but also horrendous bottlenecks at peak hours (especially in bad weather) and near monopolies for certain airlines at their key hubs — Delta in Atlanta, US Air in Pittsburgh, Continental in Houston — which has kept prices high.
2. Nonrefundable Fares
The airlines’ most brilliant, if little noted, post-deregulation marketing ploy: introducing a new class of cheap fares, but only on nonrefundable tickets, which carry stiff penalties for flyers who need to make changes. When American introduced the first “supersaver” fare in 1985, it really was nonrefundable: if you didn’t use the ticket, you were out the whole fare. Starting in the early ’90s, the airlines became more forgiving: for a fee of $25, you could rebook that nonrefundable ticket for a later time. Since then, however, the change fees have been ratcheted up steadily, so that now, in most cases, you’ve got to spend $150 to switch the return flight on your round-trip from Sunday to Monday — plus any difference in the basic fare for the new flight, which can be substantial.
3. The Demise of People Express
With deregulation came a fleet of new discount airlines, offering no-frills flights at rock-bottom prices. None made more of an impact than People Express, which offered cut-rate fares to Europe of $99 and became the beloved airline of budget travelers. When it went out of business in 1987, the major carriers breathed a sigh of relief — and the brief heyday of really cheap airline fares came to an abrupt end.
4. The Disappearance of Legroom
Remember that plush, roomy upstairs piano lounge on the first 747 jumbo jets? The days when the airlines could waste space like that didn’t last very long. One way to squeeze more profits out of their planes, the airlines quickly discovered, was to increase the number of seats they could jam into each one. Goodbye, legroom. The squeezing got so bad that it induced a backlash — United announced in August 1999 that it would reconfigure its planes to allow up to five inches of extra legroom in its Economy Plus seating, and American followed suit in February 2000 when it began removing two rows of seats in each of its aircraft, giving all coach passengers an additional three to five inches. Still, cramped coach seats remain the best advertisement for splurging on Business Class.
5. Frequent-Flyer Gimmickry
American Airlines established the first frequent-flyer program in 1981, and for years it seemed like nothing but a win-win situation for passengers: earn points for every mile you fly and, once you’ve accumulated enough (generally 25,000 miles for domestic flights), redeem them for a free round-trip. Except that those flights are getting less and less free. The airlines now charge for booking within an arbitrarily set time period (usually 21 days before your flight), booking over the phone or restoring mileage for flights that you wind up not using. Worse, the supply of frequent-flyer seats is limited, and in heavy travel periods (like, um, this entire summer) they’re almost nonexistent. Unless, of course, you’re willing to spend double the miles.
6. Lunch Is Not Served
For years stand-up comedians subsisted on jokes about bad airline food. But at least in those days you got food. The start of the era of downsized airline meal offerings can be pinpointed in 1987, when American Airlines eliminated olives from its salads. Since then, full meals have all but disappeared on domestic flights (even six-hour transcontinental jaunts), replaced by meager sandwiches and snacks for sale. (Continental, the last major carrier to offer free meals on transcontinental flights, will finally join its competitors and start charging for meals on domestic flights this fall.) Oddly, the exception is still international flights, where an eight-hour trip across the Atlantic still brings you not one but two meals: a full dinner and a (usually unwanted) breakfast four hours later.
7. Speak to an Agent? Don’t Press 1
The advent of online ticketing enabled the airlines to save money by cutting back on the number of phone agents they had to keep on duty. And, inevitably, they started charging for the privilege of making reservations the old-fashioned way. In 2004, Northwest began tacking on a $5 fee for customers who make reservations by phone and a $10 charge on tickets purchased at airport ticketing counters. American, US Airways and Continental quickly, eagerly followed suit.
8. Pay TV
An onboard movie used to be a perk of every transcontinental and overseas flight (even if you had to crane your neck to see them on those screens spaced along the aisle). Now the screens are more often on the back of your seat, and the offerings have multiplied — but you’ve got to pay for the headset needed to view them: $2 on American, $3 on Continental, $5 on US Airways. (On United, they’re still free.) And the Everybody Loves Raymond reruns haven’t improved.
9. Pay for Pets
An estimated 2 million animals travel on airplanes each year. In the late ’80s they could fly as excess baggage for $30 to $35, depending on the airline. Today, Garfield, Fido and friends will cost you $100 to $125 if they’re shipped as carry-on luggage, or up to $250 in a checked kennel. One saving grace: on Continental, your furry companion can earn you frequent-flyer mileage.
10. The Security-Line Confiscation
Flying changed after September 11, and one could hardly complain about the extra time and hassle it took to go through the beefed-up screening at the security lines — better that than a terrorist on board. But what a bonanza for airport concessionaires! How many hundreds of thousands of flyers have had to throw out their bottle of shaving lotion or Aquafina, only to repurchase another one after they’re inside the security area?