Air travel, especially in the United States, is not what it used to be. A dramatic turning point came on September 11th, a date which has since come to carry different meanings to different individuals and institutions. To domestic air carriers, 9/11 marked the beginning of a steady decline in travel yields causing most airlines to bleed red – hemorrhage cash – throughout the decade. By all accounts, the 2003-2006 period was a time of great wealth creation as the country bounced back from an economic slump following the terrorist attacks, but domestic air carriers caught none of this economic windfall. And then the Great Recession hit. The bottom line is that until recently the airline industry had failed to capture any real returns since September 10, 2001. That is one long fiscal shellacking.
Which brings us to today. The aviation landscape in the United States has been dramatically altered as a result of severe budget constraints – the ultimate display of “survival of the fittest.” In 2001, American merged with an ailing TWA. In 2005, US Air merged with America West forming US Airways, which today is in the process of merging with American Airlines, which – wait for it – is exiting bankruptcy. In 2008, both Delta and Northwest merged to form a “mega-carrier” as both airlines exited bankruptcy. A similar process was repeated in 2010 when United Airlines merged with Continental to form another aviation behemoth while budget carrier Southwest acquired Air Tran. Along the way, Air Trans America (ATA), MaxJet, Eos, Aloha, Skybus and Independence Air failed. And by the way, and that was just 2008.
In 2013, Americans should be grateful to have any air carriers left; the only reason American, United and Delta – the Big Three – air alive today is because of debt restructuring (i.e. erasing) in bankruptcy and an onslaught of mergers eliminating competition. And the travelling public is left bemoaning the sorry state of air travel today. In truth, it really is not all that sorry. The Big Three air carriers are ordering hundreds of new planes and refurbishing existing equipment previously labeled as tired; those 1990s seats which have been to a hot place and back are finally being replaced. Evidence of this commitment to enhancing the passenger experience came this week when United Airlines unveiled their most ambitious ad campaign in over two decades. The campaign, which resurrected United’s historic “fly the friendly skies” tagline (this ran originally from 1965-1996), is an overt attempt to win over a beleaguered travelling public by reminding them of the former grandeur of air travel.
Justifying the lavish ad campaign, the New York Times writes that the marketing strategy is an attempt to “re-establish United’s position as the world’s leading customer-focused airline.” Sounds good, but will they be bringing back free meals in coach, free checked baggage or free upgrades? The answer is a resounding “no,” and one would be foolish to waste time hoping for such things. The times change – fuel prices go up, airplane leasing terms become less favorable, budget constraints shift – and it would be wrong to expect the airlines not to adapt along with the times. And as a corollary, we – the travelling public – must adapt as well. Put gently, this is a dissenting opinion. Tim Winship, a publisher of frequentflier.com, was disturbed by United’s new ad campaign and was quoted in the New York Times commenting that the tagline was:
“so last century. In 2013, the skies are anything but friendly, and to suggest otherwise is to insult the intelligence of consumers and invite their scorn.”
Winship’s point is manure. The most important factor for the passenger is making it to the destination on time and in one piece, and new advancements throughout the plane have made travel both safer and faster. Additionally, the Big Three carriers are installing new seats in all classes of service, so whether you’re in the “pointy end” in a First Class sleeper suite or in coach/a human sardine can, get excited because new memory foam seats and hundreds of hours of on demand video await. And if you’re hungry, pack a lunch. Chances are it will be better – and healthier – than that free omelet that was a hallmark of “last century” and served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Winship is wrong; this century is looking pretty good.
There is one glaring problem which the New York Times covered in an opinion piece a month and a half before United’s new ad campaign announcement. The piece, authored by Anand Giridharadas, makes the astute point that air travel resembles a class system. Giridharadas writes:
What is changing today is the erosion of the idea of a common minimum experience — in air travel, to be sure, but not only there.
The aviation experience is being chopped these days into a series of discrete moments, and each moment becomes an opportunity to upsell: You can stick with the dismal base model, or you can upgrade. The result is that American air travel has become a class system as intricate as some in the ancient world.
Taken alongside United’s campaign and industry-wide product upgrades, it is clear that the travel experience is improving, but more resources are being put toward pleasing the select few in premium cabins.
Without leaving the ground, today’s traveler gets a cross-sectional view of America. You walk down the jet way and wait in a conga line to get into the shiny metal tube. You cross the threshold (mind the step) and off to your left a bottle of Dom is uncorked and poured into a series of fluted glasses to keep the parched “flying elite” hydrated. That’s just a fleeting glimpse though, and you turn to the right and make your way toward the end of the line: coach. Along the way you pass the premium economy section and think “that’s what coach used to look like.” You go through two full sections of coach before you sit down at 84J between a toddler and Chris Farley’s long lost brother. You wish you were in a van down by the river. The new United ad kicks on before the safety video and you chuckle at the reminder that you’re “flying the friendly skies.” Maybe it’s when you look at your wrinkled hands, or when you go for a run later in the week and think “I used to be faster than this,” but at some point you will recognize that nothing is immutable, and that the airline industry is no exception. Times changes, and some would even say fly.