Monday, May 26, 2008

More air travel problems

More flight cancellations

I found the articles I referenced at the end of this post on air travel. Airlines are going to be cancelling more flights, according to this Middle Seat column (free WSJ Digg link). (Yep, another post about this column. It's really excellent, both the column and my posts!) But wait, they're doing this to better passengers overall experience. From the column:

Airlines and airports say they have new procedures to prevent prolonged delays aboard airplanes, and the number of planes left sitting for three hours or more has recently declined.

But there's a trade-off: more cancellations.

Fliers are having to swap one travel nightmare -- being stuck on a plane -- for another -- being stuck in an airport. Carriers defend the choice, saying that being quicker to cancel flights rather than risk leaving planeloads of people marooned allows airlines to recover more quickly from disruptions. And, they say, airports are a much more comfortable place to while away the hours than cramped planes. Passengers have better access to essential services at airport terminals, some of which now have started to keep concessions open all night during weather disruptions and provide essentials like blankets and baby diapers. Some airport vending machines have been stocked with overnight essentials like toothpaste.
It's working too. The number of planes waiting more than 3 hours to take off is down, but cancelled flights are up. Is this a good thing? Is it better to wait in the airport than on the plane. A couple of choice points on this question.
[...] Sometimes it doesn't make sense to impose deadlines -- a flight may be very close to leaving after three hours elapse and neither passengers nor crew want to start over.

"Why should you mandate a pilot to return to the gate when he's No. 2 for takeoff?" asks David Barger, chief executive of JetBlue
Airways Corp.


Widespread cancellations don't sit well with all passengers. Dory Dean Alford, a sales manager who has "platinum" status with American because of her frequent travels, has been left stranded six or seven times by cancellations in the past year. Sometimes, she'd rather try to get where she's going than get left for a day or two. "I'd rather sit three hours because I can get home sooner," she said.
I was a beneficiary (victim?) of this move to more quickly cancel flights at the end of April, on a flight to New York. New York was experiencing thunderstorms, and the airline cancelled a slew of flights into LaGuardia that day. We were fortunately able to get on the first flight the next morning, and we were staying with relatives, so there were no additional hotel costs. We were also notified of the cancellation before we even left for the airport, so we didn't even have to drive to the airport only to drive back.

We were travelling with a small child, so in this instance I didn't mind the cancellation as much. It would have been a nightmare waiting at the airport for the plane's delayed departure, boarding the plane, and then waiting to get clearance to take off to fly to New York.

If I were travelling by myself, coming home from a business trip for example, I would have preferred to risk it and have the airline keep the flight and board me. As long as they have movies to show on the plane and they keep the air conditioning on, I can sit in those seats for hours waiting to take off (which I've done many times). Throw a kid into the mix however, and my story rapidly changes.

Fares will increase

At the end of this BusinessWeek article on the Delta/Northwest merger, there is a prediction on how much fares will increase and what the ramifications are:

[...] That would boost the average cost of a round-trip ticket from $280 to roughly $340.

While the increase may seem small, Kovacs believes it would be enough to price the hoi polloi out of the market and reduce the number of passengers on U.S. carriers from 299 million to 240 million a year. But that may be the price the airlines—and their passengers—must pay for profitability.

From what I've read, even though the number of passengers would decrease, since airlines are cutting their capacity, flights would still be just as crowded. The mass affluent will be able to handle these price hikes, but for some of the less well off, air travel will become an unaffordable luxury.

So prices are going up and the chances of flights being cancelled are going up. Sign me up.

The public's suggestions for fixing the airlines

Finally, CNNMoney offers reader feedback on how to fix the airlines. The writers thesis was that if airlines raise prices and if they also improve the flying experience, customers would be willing to pay. He had many readers agree with him, including:

"Give me back the meal, take my luggage at no additional charge, give me my window or aisle seat without an upcharge, and increase the price of a ticket," wrote Norm from Haddonfield, NJ. "I use and need the airlines and am willing to pay my share to keep them alive and well. Charge what you need to charge. We'll get used to it....just like $4 gas. Stop beating me to death with these ridiculous additional charges."

Yes! Yes! Norm for President! Stop nickle and diming me and put the price in the fare and give me a pleasant flight experience. But do I really think that when airlines raise fares to where they're finally covering their fuel and other costs that they'll improve service? Nope.