Why is flying so awful?

With more crowds and delays than ever before, air travel is going to get worse before it gets better

The gates of hell

Photo illustration by Stephen Gregory

There are worse places to be stranded for nearly three days than Palm Springs, Calif., but for 150 WestJet passengers on a recent flight to Calgary, it still constituted a travel nightmare. The flight, scheduled for a Sunday in late March, was scrapped after an inbound 737 was diverted to a nearby airport because of dangerous winds. The airline couldn’t bus the passengers to the 737 at that airport, a little over an hour away, because “by the time we got them there, the crew’s duty day would have expired,” explains spokesperson Robert Palmer.

Things went from bad to worse the following day. A second flight dispatched to Palm Springs was turned back after it encountered a mechanical problem. It wasn’t until early Wednesday that passengers finally made it to Alberta. The airline decided against trying to re-book the passengers on another carrier because it probably would have taken even longer to get them home, says Palmer, who stresses that WestJet did the best it could, paying for meals and hotel rooms. Still, the incident left many wondering how an airline that trumpets its customer service could have stumbled so badly. “I’m not mad, WestJet, just disappointed,” one passenger tweeted.

It’s an increasingly common sentiment. Warranted or not, flight delays ranging from 20 minutes to several hours have become a standard feature of the air travel experience in recent years, right alongside a $20 fee to check a second piece of luggage and $6 buy-on-board sandwiches. Only about 60 per cent of Air Canada’s flights pulled up to the gate within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival times in 2012, according to figures tracked by the website FlightStats—that’s one of the worst records among major international airlines. WestJet didn’t do much better, with an on-time performance that averaged 75 per cent. By contrast, industry leader Japan Airlines posted a 90 per cent on-time rating last year.

Experts say such dismal North American performances are a symptom of an industry trying to do too much with too little in the face of high energy prices and a teetering global economy. “When you’re maxed out it stresses all the systems,” says Mark Gerchick, an aviation consultant and former chief counsel of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, who has written a new book about the industry called Full Upright and Locked Position. “It takes longer to load the luggage and board everyone. And if you have a problem it’s a lot harder to re-book all these people.”

Nor is it just a Canadian problem. In the U.S., carriers are facing similar challenges, which threaten to be compounded this summer by federal budget cuts. Earlier this year, thousands of air traffic controllers had to be furloughed, snarling air traffic. Now, there are fears a shortage of security screeners will result in massive lineups at busy airport hubs.

Planes are becoming more crowded, too. Airlines across North America are posting record “load factors”—the percentage of seats filled on their flights—and are exploring ingenious ways to squeeze even more people on board. Worst of all, passengers may now be paying more to fly than they did just a few years ago, although many likely don’t realize it given the increasingly incomprehensible way airlines price their fares amid a flurry of extra charges. No-frills carrier Spirit Airlines, for example, has drawn the ire of consumer activists with some 70 different fees, including $35 to $50 for a carry-on bag.

It all points to an extra-hectic summer travel season characterized by long lineups, frazzled counter staff and thousands of frustrated flyers. While it’s true the airline industry is financially healthier than it has been in years—thanks to cost-cutting and its new pay-as-you-go approach (United Airlines is even offering passengers who don’t qualify for elite status the opportunity to pay $500 a year for seat upgrades and another $350 a year to avoid baggage fees)—the changes have made flying a truly trying experience that is only likely to get worse. And that, as any frequent flyer can attest, is no small feat.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, airline travel promised a customer-friendly future. Discount carriers like Southwest and JetBlue were reshaping the industry with cheap fares and an easy-to-understand business model: fly one type of plane, sell only economy-class seats and treat passengers like human beings. But these days flying is fast becoming an exercise in frustration.

Marc-David Seidel, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, says even a popular airline like WestJet, one of the industry’s top performers, is running into problems as continued expansion and efforts to boost sales add complexity to its formerly no-frills operations. He cites, in particular, a long list of code-share agreements WestJet has signed with foreign airlines that allow it to sell tickets on its partners’ routes while accepting their passengers. “WestJet has moved toward more connecting flights,” Seidel says. “And connections create a lot of opportunity for delays.” WestJet’s Palmer says that’s not the case and that “delays can be caused by any one of a host of different factors. Each situation can be very different.”

Regardless, only about 72 per cent of WestJet’s flights on its top 20 busiest routes landed on time over the past three months, according to FlightStats. That’s worse than the 74 per cent that Air Canada, with its sprawling international network, multiple aircraft types and history of acrimonious labour relations, managed during the same period. “In the early years, if WestJet had an on-time performance that was lower than Air Canada’s, it would have been a major crisis,” says Ben Cherniavsky, an analyst at Raymond James.

While weather is a factor in roughly half of all flight delays, Gerchick writes in his book that nearly a third can be attributed to factors that regulators consider to be within an airline’s control, including mechanical problems and crew scheduling mix-ups. And even at busy airports where congestion is an issue, Gerchick says airlines aren’t always honest with passengers as to why they’re sitting at the gate: “According to the FAA, they knowingly schedule more flights at crowded hubs than the airport can handle.” Another culprit is the relatively recent trend toward charging passengers to pay for checked luggage. WestJet charges between $20 and $23 for a second bag on most routes, while Air Canada charges economy-class flyers $20 for a second bag within Canada and $25 for a single piece of checked luggage on flights to the U.S. Not surprisingly, the aisles of many flights now resemble a war zone as frantic passengers search for an overhead bin into which they stuff their bulging carry-ons, slowing down boarding times.

Air Canada and WestJet both say they pay close attention to their on-time performance and are taking steps to make improvements. Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesperson, said the country’s largest airline put together a team last October to tackle the problem, which it attributed to “a number of issues arising from factors related to the industry and airports in Canada as well as internal factors specific to Air Canada.” Among the recommendations: tweaks to its schedule and an “expedited” boarding process. The latter includes asking flight attendants to no longer bother checking passengers’ tickets for a second time as they board the plane, and a requirement that all passengers checking luggage arrive at the airport 45 minutes before their flights, instead of the usual 30 minutes. It seems to be working (albeit at the expense of longer total travel times for customers). Fitzpatrick points to numbers that show Air Canada’s on-time performance improving steadily since January, beating out several of its North American rivals’. Last month, Air Canada said more than 80 per cent of its planes arrived on time. WestJet, too, says its performance has improved this spring, hitting nearly 80 per cent in April.

Even so, the overall flying experience is likely to get worse before it gets better. Airlines throughout North America are flying their planes fuller than ever, and are expected to post a collective load factor of more than 80 per cent this year, according to the International Air Transport Association, or IATA. Airlines are also pushing to have fewer flight attendants on board to cater to all those passengers. WestJet recently received approval from Ottawa to have one flight attendant for every 50 passengers on its planes, instead of the one to 40 ratio that was required previously.

At the same time, several airlines are trying to squeeze even more economy-class seats onto their planes by exploring thinner designs. The new seats would allow airlines to actually decrease the pitch, or distance between the seats, by an inch or two without impacting legroom. Air Canada could pack as many as 109 more economy-class seats onto some of its Boeing 777s, while WestJet plans to use the seats to free up more room for its own premium economy section at the front of its planes. Airlines say most passengers won’t notice the difference. But critics argue the thinner seats (with less cushioning) won’t be as comfortable on long flights.

There’s also the question of how all those extra flyers will impact the already questionable cleanliness of on-board washrooms, or the quality of recycled air inside the cabin. Gerchick says that “health isn’t something the airline industry likes to talk about.” From dirty seat pockets (which aren’t often cleaned despite being depositories for used tissues and gum) to the dingy surfaces of airplane lavatories (the suction created when the toilet flushes throws a fine mist into the air), he argues that there’s more than enough harmful microbes on board a plane to make even non-germaphobes squirm. One 2007 study found 60 per cent of tray tables were less sanitary than a New York City subway seat. A Canadian study from 2004 suggested one-fifth of all 1,100 passengers surveyed on a series of flights longer than 2½ hours came down with a cold, and were at least five times more likely to catch a cold five to seven days later than non-flyers. Though newer aircraft come with state-of-the-art air-filtration systems, Gerchick says the risk mostly arises from sitting for long periods in cramped quarters. A sneeze from a nearby passenger is all it takes to ruin your holiday.

Adding insult to illness, an index that tracks trends in Canadian airfares suggests prices have been rising on many routes over the past few years. “The cost of travel has been going up even while the economy is going down,” says Cherniavsky, who put the index together. He attributes the Canadian industry’s new-found pricing power, which he believes peaked in mid-2012, to the duopoly enjoyed by Air Canada and WestJet. WestJet has been a particular beneficiary, posting record earnings of $91 million in the first quarter of the year. Air Canada, on the other hand, recorded a $260-million net loss during the same period as it continues to reimagine its business, including the launch of a low-cost subsidiary called Rouge this summer. WestJet is also set to roll out a new regional carrier, called Encore, that will connect smaller communities like Brandon, Man., and Fort St. John, B.C., to its network.

Gerchick says a similar trend is under way south of the border. Airlines that once competed tooth and nail for market share are now preoccupied with profitability after several rounds of bankruptcies and mergers. “I think the airlines need to be careful that they don’t push this too far,” he says. “Airfares are still affordable and about where they were 10 years ago, but if they keep going up, they’re going to have some issues. Already we’ve seen a drop-off in some short-haul flying. People are taking the car.”

Another turnoff is that ticket pricing has become so complex, laden with extra fees and optional services, that it’s almost impossible for consumers to determine what qualifies as a good deal anymore. In a March research note, Cherniavsky walked readers through WestJet’s new tiered fare system, but not before first warning them to “get your calculator out.” In his example, a passenger who bought a $209 “Econo” fare from Toronto to Vancouver might need to pay another $17.25 for advanced seat selection, $75 for schedule changes, and up to $86.25 for cancellation privileges. By contrast, the traveller who shells out $569 for the “Plus” fare gets a seat with extra legroom, an extra checked bag and no change fees. But by Cherniavsky’s calculations, it’s a better deal to opt for a $209 “Econo” fare plus all the add-ons for an extra bag, a schedule change and seat selection—unless you believe a few extra inches of legroom is worth $250 on a domestic flight.

WestJet’s Palmer defends the new approach: “The airline graveyard is full of carriers that stagnated over time, eventually collapsing under their own weight. In our case, we are welcoming new types of guests on board every day, and those guests—most notably, business travellers—have very different wants and needs.”

What’s not clear is whether WestJet will eventually abandon its popular policy of not “overselling” flights now that it’s offering travellers who pay extra for more flexibility to change their itinerary. “They can’t have eight people decide at the last minute they don’t want to go,” says Rick Erickson, a Calgary-based aviation consultant. Overbooking is a common practice at airlines who cater to business customers, including Air Canada (which the Canadian Transportation Agency recently ruled must boost compensation to affected passengers from the $100 in cash or $200 travel voucher currently offered).

If there’s a bright spot for travellers, it’s that flying isn’t nearly as expensive as it used to be. The cheapest fare from Toronto to Calgary in 1997 was about $945 in today’s dollars, according to Raymond James. Air Canada is currently offering sale fares on the same route for $265, including taxes and fees (although the flights are only available on certain days of the week, with a 10-day advance booking). Nor are airlines rolling in cash. Globally, they’ll pocket just $12.7 billion of the roughly $711 billion in sales they take in this year, according to IATA. That’s a measly 1.8 per cent profit margin, or about $4 per passenger. By contrast, a typical retailer enjoys margins of about five per cent.

But while flying may be relatively cheap, historically speaking, the trade-off is comfort and overall experience. “We’re entering a new era on the part of the carriers,” says Erickson, pointing to the trend toward offering a strictly “bare bones” product. For anything else, be prepared to pull out your credit card—and, quite likely, your hair along with it.


Why is flying so awful?

  1. Maybe you should walk? There was a time when crossing the country took months and involved a high risk of death. Now we can hop on an airplane be there in hours. An hour or day delay is small potatoes. Get some perspective, please.

    • I agree. Let’s not forget you are 30 000 feet in the air traveling at 500 miles per hour in a hundred tonne metal tube. Its practically a miracle! And people are whining about the sandwiches and 15 minutes delays….. Wow, crazy world!

      • It’s been 100 years since the invention of flight. I’m pretty sure the wow factor/novelty has worn off.

        Are you still mystified and slightly scared of your car, wondering where the pixie dust it obviously uses as fuel is kept?

        • For those of us who get travel sickness, the “wow factor” of being able to fly in a fraction of the time it takes to drive will never wear off. Never mind that you don’t have to deal with the traffic and the nasty tail-gating drivers. The fact that you can leave the frozen north in the am and be in the tropics in the pm never gets old.

    • .. and at one point do the costs and delays reach a point where you say “this isn’t so great any more” ?

      keep moving that goalpost.

  2. Good write up. Send a copy to United Airlines. Do they care. No.

    • United Airlines is the WORST airline I have ever had the misfortune to travel with. And it was to Australia, so it was a very looooong and uncomfortable misfortune.

      Flying back on Air Canada felt like a premiere airline experience. Never again, United, never again.

      • It is often relative…relative to how much you paid for your ticket. I now go DIRECTLY to Expedia for the best price although I do always try to fly Westjet and I do always try to get a direct flight. I too have found United to be quite obnoxious (in terms of staff attitude). If I am not mistaken, United and Air Canada are business partners.

        • They are all part of the “Star Alliance.” Westjet does not go to Oz, or Europe, or even where I go in Canada every summer. But you can pick and choose which airline you fly on, even if you go on points, so I plan to avoid United forever. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a short haul, but getting stuck in a cattle car for 14 hours is a bit much for me. If only I could afford first class, but alas.

      • I love United I will never support Air Canada ever again they are the worst run airline in the world and don’t deserve to have the Maple leaf on their plane. There customer service is an absolute disgrace!!!!

    • United yelled at us, because our six month old was about to puke and we ran to the closest bathroom, in time. When we came out, the attendant said. . you can’t use the first class bathroom. I said “Did you want him puking forty rows down to the back of the aircraft. . . .” At least there was no accident.

      • ADULTS ONLY flights, anyone?

    • I have never even flown United Airlines but while I was waiting in the terminal I witnessed their treatment of customers. I have never booked a flight with them and never would. How they treated this customer who had a legitimate concern blew me away. The customer was bumped from the flight because United had overbooked the plane. The customer was not on standby and had a legitimate ticket. They were not sympathetic to the misfortune of the customer and took no responsibility for their error.

  3. I suspect flying won’t actually get any better until some serious new passenger protection regulations are put into place. The checked luggage fees, while probably helping airline margins, have been a disaster for passengers, for on-time percentages, and for flight attendants who have to deal with the too many people trying to fit too large “carry-ons” into the limited space available. But, there’s no reason to believe the industry will change that on its own, since the price for those checked bags doesn’t show up when you shop for tickets on expedia.

    At a bare minimum, we need regulations requiring airlines offer a single checked bag (with reasonable size/weight limits) and the “one small bag/one personal item” carry-on norm. We also need some serious regulations to deal with those exceptional situations, like the WestJet passengers (or the Jet Blue passengers from a few years ago) who are stranded for days because the airline can’t get its stuff together. I’m sure there are also a number of other things that should go into a “Passengers’ Bill of Rights”, but I don’t have time to think about it right now (I would not include, though, things like food, though maybe de minimis drink service should be required, given security liquid restrictions).

  4. I’m not sure how this is a knock on customer service. A dedicated 737 was sent each of the two days the people were stranded. Both “rescue” flights were diverted for safety reasons – exceptionally high wind speed and a mechanical problem. Safety first in aviation, period. All expenses were covered; hotel, meal, transportation, and the company issued a public apology with full explanation. “Stuff” happens, it’s the cost of doing business and the “risk” we all assume when traveling anywhere.

    “Why is flying so awful?”…. Quite the biased lead-in, right out of the gate, and remains prejudiced throughout. This is opinion, not business.

    • I agree. Westjet is usually awesome. They do supply hotels and food. We were delayed due to strong winds out of Hawaii and they got us pizza and arranged new connecting flights. They went out of their way to look after us when weather was the issue.

  5. My solution is to stop flying entirely. The last time I was on a plane was 1999.

    • Yes, you can chose to never fly but that means giving up trips to places like Hawaii….bummer!

  6. Airlines are more concerned with maximizing profits over service. When I was younger, taking a plane was an experience that was enjoyed no matter how long a flight was and we were allowed two bags no matter the class of ticket and the flight attendants treated everyone as special guests.

  7. Who would join me in supporting high speed trains instead of airlines? There would be little security needed and you would not have to sit there for 1 or 2 hours before boarding etc. Bet you could get across the country in a shorter time too.

  8. Economies of scale and growth driven profit at all costs, that’s MBA speak for success in any business, so get ready for more innovative plans at the consumers expense either in monetary, convenience, or comfort aspects. Don’t expect airline employees to mitigate it either, their benefits, pensions and salaries have been pilfered through bankruptcies, reorganizations and union sell outs, no wonder they’re disgruntled. In fact the only person I’ve heard of who loves airlines is Robert Milton and he’s flown a few into bankruptcy, but always emerged the richer for it.

  9. love the Louis CK references (miracle of flight) in the comments

    • I was waiting for the final line, “How quickly the world owes you something, you non-contributing zero!” haha

  10. Ive been a professional pilot for 30 years and am not surprised by this article. The second last paragraph is the most telling. People want relatively cheap airfares – to achieve that the airlines are stretching every asset and employee to the max. The old adage appli., You can have it good and cheap but not both at at the same time. The air traffic system is overburdened, airports are running at full capacity, airlines aren’t carrying a half dozen spare aircraft, and flight crew2s are generally running close to their duty limits – when a delay occurs it tends to snowball.

    • do we have a choice?

  11. Just remember airlines make 3-6% profit margin. If passengers keep with the gimme gimme gimme attitude and expect more for less, that profit margin dips intot he negative and you will soon find yourself driving to where you are going.

  12. 1. Security theater

    2. Rude flight attendants

    3. Poor service

    Anybody who has flown almost any airline in Asia will know what I mean. Singapore and Korean Air’s economy class is literally 10x better than Air Canada (or any US airline) first class.

    Flight attendants are stuck doing a job they hate because they want the benefits/pension. Nobody should have to deal with passengers in this situation for 20+ years, just like nobody should work at a fast food restaurant cashier job for 20+ years. The difference is when you get fed up and start treating the customers poorly at McBurgers, you get fired. The airlines’ hands are tied, and it’s the passengers who suffer the wrath from tired, angry flight attendants who take their dissatisfaction with their life out on them.

    • Yes Korean airlines offer exceptional service, pretty much all of Korea does, but their pilots are poorly trained in comparison to ours (Canada and the USA). I prefer safety over customer service. You won’t want to be on a Korean airline if the glide scope indicator at an airport is out of service. Korean pilots are notoriously bad at thinking outside the box in an emergency situation. The schooling for Korean pilots tends to place an emphasis on rote memorization instead of on knowledge based creative thinking.

  13. Flying? I would rather take the train of possible. Tired of the lack of respect I receive. Tired of being treated like a criminal. Tired of being jammed into a seat with some kid kicking the back of it for the next 5 hours. All because we have yeilded to a bunch of terrorist activities for the most part subsidized by the Arab nations. It is all a matter of control – and the passenger – known to many as “goats or mobile cargo” are the flock to be herded.

  14. To travel from YDF to YYT used to be a pleasure at one time EPA (Eastern Provincial Aitlines) used B737s with great service real food etc. Now Air Canada used an 18 seat aircraft with no snacks, no flight attendant, no bathroom or toilet, and no door to the cockpit! To get on board we have to show up 2 hours prior to boarding, go through several layers of security, screening etc. I am sure there are more security personnel that at JFK ! The Ticket has just as many add ons, Airport fees, Nav Canada fees Taxes etc. If this is the new era of flying, please bring back EPA !

  15. Just wondering how many more times Robert Milton’s Ace Aviation is going to go bankrupt Air Canada, and have the Canadian government keep bailing the Air Canada out only to leave Robert Milton in charge of everything! If you ask me his greed and leadership has destroyed what was the best airline in the world before he got ahold of it in the 90s and ran it into the ground!!!!

  16. My family travels to India every few years. The price has not really changed in the last twenty years, but the fees have. For a journey that nearly takes 24 hours, I would rather pay more and have service and not worry about luggage weights, etc. It gets hard. Having said that Air Canada is not too bad on the international scene. They are not like Emirates in high quality, but they beat my experience with Swiss Air.

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