Why air travel is hell
Delays, cancellations, miserable service, soaring prices . . . and it's only getting worse. The golden age of travel is over.
JASON KIRBY | July 16, 2008 |
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Last week, US Airways announced it was ripping the entertainment systems out of its planes flying domestic routes. The move would lighten the aircraft by 500 lb. and reduce fuel costs by $10 million a year, and if passengers were dismayed by the loss of another basic airline perk, well, they could always just stare out the window. The real surprise was that it didn't happen sooner. With fuel prices on the rise, nothing is sacred as carriers hunt for ways to save.
An official at one Indian airline recently warned that the taps in its airplane washrooms may run dry since aircraft now carry less water on every flight, something several European airlines are also considering. In China, they've gone even further. For some time now, according to reports, at least one airline has asked passengers to avoid using toilets because a single flush at 30,000 feet consumes enough fuel to power a car for 10 km. No doubt airline CEOs in North America have already done the math on that one, and are just trying to come up with a delicate way to ask passengers to hold it until they land.
Back in the 1980s, a popular airline slogan invited people to "come fly the friendly skies." Not these days. With analysts predicting airlines in the U.S. alone will lose $10 billion this year, and mass layoffs reaching into the tens of thousands, the skies have gone from friendly to desperate. Since January, two dozen airlines worldwide have taxied out of existence, including Hawaii's Aloha Airlines and Oasis Airlines, which offered flights from Vancouver to Hong Kong for $250. Most experts suspect some of the world's biggest airlines will soon follow. This week, Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, warned there will be "spectacular casualties" in the industry over the coming year.
And so cost-cutting is the order of the day. Routes have been chopped, service sliced to the bone, and passengers have found themselves nickled and dimed on everything from blankets and snacks to checking in luggage and selecting a seat. Those passengers who collect loyalty points had better be prepared to cough up dough for their "free flights" — several airlines have started charging fees to redeem points, assuming, that is, those points haven't already been cancelled as per some obscure footnote in their contracts. At the same time, delays and cancellations in both Canada and the U.S. are on the rise as a result of pilot shortages, traffic congestion and financial troubles. Delays at Canada's largest airports are up 31 per cent over the last two years, while at some U.S. airports barely half of all flights are on time. And good luck to the poor traveller who needs help. With layoffs looming, customer service agents are on the endangered species list.
Is it any wonder then that there is such a steady flow of horror stories from the trenches of the global airline industry? In late June, passengers on a Chinese flight that had sat on the tarmac for three hours, only to be cancelled, refused to get off and instead camped out on the airplane overnight. Last week, passengers waiting for an American Airlines flight from Miami to New York were left standing around for an hour and a half for their flight crew to arrive. When the employees finally showed up (they'd been stuck in customs) a few passengers booed, hollered and hurled obscenities. Two flight attendants refused to work and the flight was cancelled, forcing passengers to wait another day before reaching LaGuardia. To top it off, their bags were sent to John F. Kennedy International.
Canadians have been particularly vexed about Air Canada's extra fees and customer service levels. When the airline instituted its "On My Way" program in April, in which passengers who pay a fee of $25 to $35 get extra service in the event of a weather-related cancellation, critics argued it was just another way for the airline to hold its customers for ransom. Blogs and forums are littered with complaints. One site even sells "Err Canada ruined my vacation" T-shirts to disgruntled travellers. And even though most experts say Canadians are far better served than Americans when it comes to air travel, it doesn't really matter. Whether in Montreal or Mumbai, New York or Nanjing, passengers are feeling the brunt of cutbacks everywhere.