Looking on the bright side: airfares, routes, and safety

The hassles and indignities of flying are duly noted.  But what about the upside?

Seldom does the cranky flyer acknowledge the benefits wrought from the airline industry’s cutthroat competition.

Passengers have reaped the benefit of dirt-cheap tickets, for one.  The legacies have had little choice but to match the prices offered by LCCs, one result being that airfares in 2010 remain approximately where they were in the mid-1980s.  The real cost of air travel — the price of a ticket adjusted for inflation — has fallen sharply over the past 20 years, even with tremendous surges in the cost of oil.  Long after Deregulation fares have continued to drop as airlines work to squeeze cost from their product.  Amenities and customer service aren’t what they used to be, but what do you expect from carriers whose profit margins come down to a few pennies per passenger?  Airlines sell what people claim to want.  And more than anything else they want rock-bottom fares.

On my bookshelf at home is an old American Airlines ticket receipt.  It’s a flea market find and it dates from 1946.  That year, somebody named James Connors paid $334 to fly each direction between Ireland and New York.  That’s equivalent to $3,690 today — one-way!  In 2013 you can pick up an off-season round-trip on that route for less than $500.  Between 2005 and 2010, with airlines struggling and fuel prices soaring, the average economy class fare, adjusted for inflation, was the cheapest it had ever been.  Things have changed little moving into the next decade, even when factoring in those add-on fees that passengers so despise (see other topic).

If flying seems expensive, one factor might be the myriad of taxes that are added to your fare.  There’s a domestic flight segment tax, a security surcharge, a passenger facility charge, a jet fuel tax, international departure and arrival taxes, customs fees — and those are just some of them.  The US Federal government adds 17 unique taxes and fees to airline tickets, accounting for a quarter or more of the total cost of a ticket, depending on fare.  (On a $300 round-trip, they add up to about $60.)  Percentage-wise these taxes are often more than double those carried by tobacco, firearms, or alcohol — products carrying so-called sin taxes meant to dissuade use.

Another seldom acknowledged benefit of modern-day air travel can be seen in the airlines’ route networks.  On the domestic front, you can fly between almost any two airports in America with, at worst, a single stopover.  A few decades ago, that one-stop trip from Tucson, Arizona, to Bangor, Maine, would have entailed awkward transfers through two, three, or maybe four other cities.  Internationally, transoceanic routes have fragmented, allowing people to fly direct from smaller hubs to points in Europe and Asia: Pittsburgh to Paris; Seattle to Beijing; Boston to Tokyo.  Nobody enjoys holding patterns or sitting on a tarmac, but in earlier days the overall journey time would have been longer  — not to mention pricier.


If you enjoyed this discussion, chances are you’ll love the new book


Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!