WHY WE'VE STOPPED FLYING
By Joe Brancatelli
October 30, 2013 --Allow me to paraphrase: Flying is Dead! Long Live Flying!
I don't go royalist very often, but that classic utterance after the death of a monarch really does seem appropriate in light of travel figures released this week by the government. If numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) are to believed—and there's no reason why they shouldn't be—Americans have soured on flying. Systemwide, U.S. airlines carried 69.2 million passengers in July, the same number they carried in July, 2012. Domestic passengers in July (59.3 million) actually fell year-over-year by seven-tenths of a point, but were offset by an uptick of travelers on international itineraries (9.9 million).
This is no one-off anomaly, either. According to the BTS, flying was essentially flat in the first seven months of the year, too. The 435 million fliers who boarded planes between January and July was just four-tenth of a point higher than traffic in the first seven months of last year.
And it all fits the recent historical pattern. For the year 2012, 736.6 million people boarded aircraft, essentially flat compared to 2011. Ironically, 2011 was the year that the government once thought the nation would first vault the one-billion-flier mark.
Where have all the fliers gone? Why have Americans apparently decided that flying is not the wave of the future? What are we doing if we're not flying?
Answering those thorny questions is the hard part, of course. We have no numbers to guide us. The government churns out no statistics to explain the stall. Anything we say about the flame-out of flying is, at best, an educated guess.
So with the caveat that we're flying by the seat of our pants, here are five thoughts about why business travelers and average Americans alike have stopped turning up at the airport.We don't need to fly as much Back in the day—"the day" being a decade ago—we needed to fly whenever there was business to be done. Our lives were an endless series of next-flight-out crises that required us to haul butt to press the flesh, put out a corporate fire or just baby-sit a cranky client. Today, not so much. The Internet has changed the face of business and business travel. With cheap, ubiquitous teleconferencing, PDFs and all sorts of other collaborative tools, flying is often superfluous. And as the frequent flier and blogger David Danto recently noted, our technology tools get easier and more cost-effective while flying gets harder and more expensive. The roadblock at security Regardless of your political views about the need for the Transportation Security Administration and your business opinions of the efficacy of the agency's tactics, it's anecdotally obvious that the scrum at airport security checkpoints has beaten down the flying numbers. Once upon a time—that's about ten years before "the day"—business travelers would never drive more than two hours to a meeting or a sales call. Flying was the transport of choice for any longer runs. Today, not so much. Business flyers are so annoyed by the security kabuki at the nation's airport that they have stretched the driving window to four or even six hours. I've spoken to business travelers who'll even drive eight hours to bypass flying. And in a few high-density corridors—notably the Boston-Washington megalopolis—Amtrak is now preferred over flying.
The crunch in coach More than a year ago, a Seat 2B column explained that airlines were squeezing more seats into coach cabins and making plane rides nearly unbearable. The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press belatedly came to the same conclusion this month. It's gotten so uncomfortable in the back of the bus that aircraft manufacturers like Airbus now publicly urge airline customers to rethink seating strategies. Twin the cramped quarters with record high load factors—this week's BTS report says 86.9 percent of seats on international flights were filled—and you have a Dickensian coach experience. For business travelers who can't bump up to the premium cabins, the prospect of a coach flight is often so daunting that they choose to remain grounded.
The rising cost of flying I would (and have) argued that the cost of flying is not rising as fast as the public perception. But with the airline system as a whole shrinking and energy prices stubbornly high, finding a bargain is more difficult than ever. And for the general flying public, which seems to believe that $69 flights to Florida, $99 coast-to-coast rides and $149 trips to Europe are a constitutional right, the current fare landscape looks outrageous. So they don't fly. Business travelers have reason to kick, too, since the fare hikes that have stuck have been aimed directly as us last-minute fliers. So we often defer trips in search of a lower fare.
The wow factor is missing Finally, the most touchy-feely reason of all: Flying just isn't fun anymore and there's certainly no "wow factor" in our current lives on the road. Yes, airports and hotels are dramatically better than ever. But airlines, especially on domestic routes, are boring. They were slow to bring WiFi to aircraft and they charge what seem like outrageous fees. The newest aircraft in the skies—the double-decked Airbus A380 "super-jumbo" and the sleek (if troubled) Boeing 787 Dreamliner—aren't deployed on domestic runs. More than half the nation's flights are operated by small regional jets with cramped quarters. The flight crews and airport employees are overworked and underpaid. Flyers are nickeled-and-dimed for everything—seat assignments, checked bags, in-flight food, beverage and, on some carriers, overhead storage space. And while flight delays have eased dramatically, the lack of a negative is not an exciting marketing opportunity.
But don't say we weren't warned. As far back as the 1970s, Southern Airways TV spots claimed that airlines separated passengers into "the peasants" and "the nobility." Turns out we're all flying peasants.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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