It’s pile-on time for America’s commercial airlines. The contempt people hold for them has long been severe, but following a raft of highly publicised incidents, resentment has hit a fever pitch.
It started about a month ago, with the forced removal of a passenger on-board a United Express flight. This was followed by several more airlines-behaving-badly controversies, up to and including the death of Simon, a giant rabbit who perished after a London-to-Chicago United flight. Over and over we are reminded about the hellishness that is commercial flying. Enabled by cell phone cameras and the catalyst of social media, even the most mundane boarding snafu or on-board fracas has been getting its 15 minutes.
I’m a commercial pilot, so I take some of this personally. I also think it’s time for a slightly different perspective.
People often talk about a proverbial “golden age” of air travel, and if only we could return to it. That’s an easy sentiment to sympathise with. I’m old enough to recall when people actually looked forward to flying. I remember a trip to Florida in 1979, and my father putting on a coat and tie for the occasion. I remember cheesecake desserts on a 60-minute flight in economy. Yes, things were once a little more comfortable, a little more special.
One of the reasons that flying has become such a melee is because so many people now have the means to partake in it. It wasn’t always this way. Adjusted for inflation, the average cost of a ticket has declined about 50 per cent over the past 35 years. This isn’t true in every market, but on the whole fares are far cheaper than they were 30 years ago. (And yes, this is after factoring in all of those add-on “unbundling” fees that airlines love and passengers so despise.)
For my parents’ generation, it cost several thousand dollars in today’s money to travel to Europe. Even coast-to-coast trips were something relatively few could afford. As recently as the 1970s, an economy ticket from New York to Hawaii cost nearly $3,000 (Dh11,019), adjusted for inflation.
Not only are tickets cheaper, but we have a wider range of options. There are planes going everywhere, all the time. Pretty much any two major cities in the world are now connected through at most one stop: Los Angeles to Delhi; New York to Fuzhou, China; Toronto to Nairobi. Overall journey times used to be much longer, and flying from the United States to points overseas meant having to connect at one of only a handful of gateway airports, with additional stops beyond.
Even well into the jet age, what today would be a simple non-stop or one-stop itinerary could include multiple stopovers. Not just internationally, but domestically, too: Three stops in a DC-9 to reach St Louis from Albany, then another two stops on the trunk route over to Seattle or San Francisco.
Sure, you had more legroom and a hot meal. It also took you 14 hours to fly coast-to-coast, or two-and-a-half days to reach Karachi, Pakistan. Miss your flight? The next one didn’t leave in 90 minutes; it left the following day — or the following week.
I could mention, too, that the aeroplanes of decades past were louder — few things were more deafening than a 707 at take-off thrust — and more gas-guzzling and polluting. And if, in 2017, you’re put off by a lack of legroom or having to pay for a sandwich, how would you feel about sitting for eight hours in a cabin filled with tobacco smoke? As recently as the 1990s, smoking was still permitted on aeroplanes.
More spacious and safer
As for legroom, there’s that conventional wisdom again, contending that airlines are forever cramming more rows into their aircraft. Except it’s not necessarily true. The spacing between rows, called “pitch” in the business, is, on average, less than it was 20 or 30 years ago — and yes, passengers themselves have become larger on average — but only slightly. Remember Laker Airways, whose ‘Skytrain’ service ran between the United States and London in the 1970s and early ’80s? Sir Freddie Laker, the airline’s flamboyant founder, configured his DC-10s with a bone-crunching 345 seats — about 100 more than the typical DC-10 at the time.
And what’s that in front of you? It’s a personal video screen with hundreds of on-demand movies and TV shows. No, not every carrier has these, but on longer flights it’s a standard amenity, along with USB and power ports. On-board Wi-Fi is widespread. Remember when the “in-flight movie” was projected onto a blurry bulkhead screen, and you listened through one of those stethoscope-style headsets with jagged plastic cups that scratched into your ear?
Up front, in first or business class, forget it. You can have your Pullman berths and caviar on the flying boats of the 1940s, trundling along noisily, 17 hours from New York to Paris. You can have your tuxedoed stewards and your piano lounges in the old 747 upper deck. I’ll take the state-of-the-art sleeper seat and 25-inch screen; the electric privacy barrier and five-course dinner presentation. It’s no contest; premium class has never been as swanky or as comfortable as it is today.
Then there’s safety.
Globally — catastrophes like those involving Malaysia Airlines Flights 17 and 370 included — the last 10 years have been the safest in the history of commercial aviation. Here in North America the stats are even more astonishing: There has not been a major crash involving an American legacy carrier in more than 15 years. By comparison, in 1985, 27 air disasters killed almost 2,500 people worldwide. During the 1960s, the United States saw an average of four major crashes every year. United alone had seven major accidents in a five-year span.
The 1960s, ’70s and ’80s also were rife with terrorist bombings and hijackings: Pan Am 103, Air India, UTA and TWA, among others. Between the late ’60s and early ’70s, American commercial aircraft were hijacked at a rate of nearly once per week. Airport terminal attacks were frequent throughout that era as well.
For a number of reasons — technological, regulatory and infrastructural — aviation accidents have become a lot fewer and farther between. There are twice as many planes in the air as there were just 25 years ago, yet the rate of fatal accidents per miles flown has been steadily falling. The International Civil Aviation Organisation reports that for every million flights the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980. Hijackings and terrorist attacks, for all of the attention lavished on their mere possibility, have become even rarer.
There’s no denying that airlines today could and should do a better job — at communicating, at treating their customers with dignity and respect. I’m well acquainted with the nuisances of modern-day air travel: I don’t enjoy claustrophobic planes, delays, noisy airports or wasteful security practices any more than you do.
But those good old days, maybe, are more mythical than we admit. Do you really want to travel like people did in the 1960s? Are you sure? No, you don’t have to love flying. But you shouldn’t take it for granted, either.
— New York Times News Service
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot who writes about flying at www.askthepilot.com.