How Airlines Cash In on Our Discomfort

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Flying is more uncomfortable than ever, and the airlines made it that way. If you want relief, you have to pay.
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These days, flying can be painful. Airline seats are smaller and closer together than ever before, and more passengers are crammed onto every plane.

“It’s not your imagination that you’re on a fuller plane than you used to be,” says William J. McGee, the former editor-in-chief of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. McGee has also worked for the airline industry for almost seven years. “We’re looking at rates that we have not seen since the airlines were troop carriers during the Second World War.”

McGee, a current columnist for USA Today and the author of “Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent—And How To Reclaim Our Skies,” says the airline industry is constantly operating at a “breaking point.”

But for extra money, customers can get more legroom, board early, or get access to Wi-Fi. However, a lot of us aren't willing to fork over the extra cash, so our experience is just getting worse.

“It was the stuff of comedy routines years ago,” McGee says. “But the fact is, there is a greater and greater segregation of passengers. And I don’t just mean behind the curtain in first class or business class—even within economy class now.”

Starting in 2015, Delta Airlines will offer more class options, including "Basic Economy," where customers can pay less money for fewer benefits. Basic Economy passengers can't change flights, upgrade their seats, or receive a refund for unused tickets.

“It’s a new sub-class of service where you have even fewer rights,” McGee adds. “That is the general direction that the U.S. airline industry is going.”

The low sticker price will attract a lot of bargain shoppers, but the financial relief might not be worth the lack of benefits.

“The fact is, they’re taking away more and more services and products and charging us for it,” he says. “The airlines say, ‘Well, we’re offering more choice and that’s what our customers say they want.’ But these choices are not always reflected in the fares.”

Many airlines view the upsell of a bag of nuts or a cocktail, things that might once have been included with a trip 20 years ago, as a service option that consumers must now actively choose. But McGee says that despite removing complimentary services, airline fares haven’t budged, even in the face of falling fuel prices.

“When fuel prices go up, the airlines are quick to scream about it and add increases in the fares,” he says. “But when the opposite happens we’re told, ‘Well we hedged our fuel; we bought it in advance, so it hasn’t really affected anything,’ and consumers don’t see the benefit. It’s obviously a system that is gamed. And it’s not gamed in favor of the consumer.”

And airlines aren’t just sacrificing things like a free drink or extra leg room, either.

“Anyone who’s flown in recent years knows that airline service has been degraded,” says McGee. “But my bigger concern is actually that the same mindset that nickels and dimes for bags, crackers, and pillows has also created an environment where maintenance of the aircraft is being outsourced to third world countries.”

For the last several years, McGee says airlines have started to tap the cheap labor of third world nations—and they often do so at the expense of safety.

“For decades and decades, maintenance was done in-house by qualified and licensed mechanics,” he says. “There were drug and alcohol screenings, and security screenings. Now all of that has gone by the board. The Federal Aviation Administration allows all U.S. airlines to outsource maintenance, and they all do.”

Overseas, unlicensed technicians frequently repair aircrafts owned by U.S. airlines, with one licensed mechanic signing off on all of the work being performed.

“It’s a completely different model than we’re used to,” says McGee. “Quite frankly, we haven’t quite seen the full results of what all this will mean.”