Business, Finance & Economics

Airlines are running more full than at any time since they ferried troops during World War II

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Melvyn Koh, at center, tries out Italian company Aviointeriors' aircraft "standing seat" which has 23 inches of legroom instead of the current economy class average of 30 inches.

Credit:

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

These days, flying can literally be painful. Airline seats are smaller and closer together than ever before, and more passengers are crammed onto every plane.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

“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. “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.”

For extra money, customers can get more legroom, board early or get access to Wi-Fi. But 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 Air Lines 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 says. “That is the general direction that the US 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.”

McGee says 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 US airlines to outsource maintenance, and they all do.”

Overseas, unlicensed technicians frequently repair aircraft owned by American 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,” McGee says. “Quite frankly, we haven’t quite seen the full results of what all this will mean.”

This story is based on an interview from PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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