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.