Americans are entitled to a lot of things. Scratch that. Americans are entitled to a lot of important things. I’m talking things that people in other countries across the globe only dream about–we get to pick our religions (or ignore them completely), we can diss the government to our students, look at lewd photos of our Congressmen online. Heck, we can even cheat on our spouses without the threat of getting stoned to death. Oh, and if we don’t want to admit we stole a television from that electronics store, no one can force us to. Our Constitution grants us these liberties.
Perhaps if air travel was around when our Founding Fathers put that document together, they’d have granted us all the right to cheap airfare, as well, but guess what? They didn’t.
I know it’s shocking to think that in a world where you can get a hamburger for $.89 in under three minutes that somehow airfares might still be unaffordable for some people. Not even some people. A lot of people. But, folks, the reality is that sending a jet into the sky to soar thousands of miles above the population at speeds that make birds drop their beaks is not cheap. It’s not cheap because it’s infinitely more complicated than slapping some beef onto a grill.
Yes, yes, we’ve come a long way in transportation. Most people can afford cars now, to the point that we look down our noses at those who choose to take the bus. And, oh, yes, you can take a bus ride across your town for probably under $3. Some wonderful (East Coast) cities even feature trains that connect their cities to other cities, and that is a relatively cheap way to travel, too. Cars, buses and trains have nothing on the complexity of an airplane.
Look, I’m in no way qualified to dive into exactly how difficult it is for a jet to take off with hundreds of people (and baggage) aboard and stay aloft long enough to get to a destination and then land again. But, I’ve been working with people who are qualified to dive into this for the last year now and let me tell you: it’s bloody difficult.
We’ve come a long way in air transportation, too–of course, you all know that traveling by plane is the safest way to travel. There are lots of highly skilled people in place at airlines to ensure that this remains true, but their expertise is costly. The expertise of a well-trained pilot is costly, too. Airplanes are really costly, and so are all the parts they contain.
The bottom line is that flying from one city to another (mind you, in usually less than half the time it takes to get there by car) is operationally expensive. And because of this, regardless of what people now expect, flying is still a luxury.
It’s a luxury because, unlike most buses and trains, airlines are not in the business of public service. They are not (well, for the most part) subsidized by the government. Airlines are in the business of making money, though even sometimes they forget that themselves. Airlines are for-profit businesses–just like those companies that churn out quick and cheap burgers–and when they don’t make money, they close (well, or get a little bailout…but that’s for another time).
People feel entitled to cheap airfare. I think public transportation helped this mentality or perhaps it’s good ole American entitlement at work again. But the fact is that airfare has no right to be as cheap as it often is today (anyone remember $2000 fares pre-deregulation back in the ’70s?), and so instead of demanding that businesses drop their fares lower and lower and lower, some people might just have to accept that they can’t afford to fly. I know, it’s a tough reality to face, but it’s reality nonetheless. Because, I reiterate, hopping on a plane is NOT as simple as hopping on a bus. (Disagree? Please let me know and I will work to arrange for your morning bus driver to pilot your next flight.) Look, I want to fill my closet with Manolos, friends, but it’s not gonna happen anytime soon, because I can’t afford it. And, painful as it might be to accept, I do accept it.
However, airlines recognize that everybody feels entitled to fly! They realize that trying to explain the complexities of their planes’ engines will fall on deaf ears and instead have focused their collective attention on finding ways to make travel more affordable for more people. Hooray! The fact is that they need people to be able to afford to fly…or they go out of business (or get subsidized).
So, post 9/11, airlines came up with a really easy way to drive down fares. Get ready, here comes the buzz word: unbundling. A few airlines tried it with a few services at first, and then a couple of new airlines came along that built their entire businesses on unbundling and showed legacy carriers that they could unbundle even more than they originally thought. (Shhhh, don’t tell anyone they’ve been doing this in Europe long before American airlines caught on!)
Unbundling is when you pay for just your base fare, and then choose to add other services–like checked bags, early boarding, seat assignments, snacks–to the cost of your ticket either when you purchase your travel or at the airport.
The great thing about unbundling is that if you don’t need to check a bag or if you can’t afford that mini Vodka, you don’t have to pay for it. Only the people who want those services pay for them, and your fare is lower because the airline is no longer trying to cover all of its costs in all of its fares.
GASP, you say! But those are fees! I’m getting nickel and dimed to death! The airline is passing its cost on to me! Yes, the airline is passing its cost on to you, because that is what businesses do. Well, at the least the ones that want to stay in business do. I repeat: air travel is not a public service. The shirt on your back was not free because someone made that shirt and passed the production cost on to you (plus some mark up to, you know, pay its employees and maybe make a little profit at the end of the day).
What airlines have done is innovated a way to make travel cheaper for you while being able to stay in business (or not need a bailout).
Some airlines, *cough*Southwest*cough, still claim their services are free so unbundling products isn’t necessary, but you aren’t really that naive, right? We all know the cost of those “free” bags is now loaded back into your fare (oh, you didn’t notice the uptick in average Southwest fares in the last several years?).
Admittedly, these add-ons are not terribly convenient. No one wants to feel like they’re paying fees ad nauseam, but this is the cost of cheaper airfare for all. You pay to check your bags so the guy without any doesn’t have to subsidize you. He’ll then pay for his own sandwich since you brought one from home.
And let’s face it, everyone complaining about unbundling would still complain if these fees disappeared and airfare went back up–people will always find something to complain about, especially if an airline is involved. Especially if they feel like air travel shouldn’t cost more than taking the bus.
It’s OK for airlines to make money, too, you know. I know that’s a hard one to swallow, but you wouldn’t just sit at your desk all day working for free, right? Of course not, and you shouldn’t be expected to. And neither should your pilot.
Oh, I just remembered one other thing the Constitution guarantees: you can choose to drive between San Francisco and New York any time you’d like and never have to set one foot inside an airplane or give one penny to those blood-sucking airlines who could get you there in six hours instead of five days for less than you’d pay for gas. Here in America, that’s your choice.