Have you ever had the pleasure of sitting next to an airline CEO on a flight? I have.
When they have to get somewhere, they actually fly on their own airline (in first class, of course, if their airline has it). I’ve only had the briefest of conversations. Like the time I sat next to David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue. He wasn’t much interested in talking to me, which was fine I guess.
But I’ve often fantasized what a Jeff Smisek (United Airlines) or Thomas Horton (American Airlines) would say if I (or you) complained about the state of commercial air travel these days.
While he'd likely remain perfectly professional, he'd probably like to let loose and rant about what's really going on in the airline industry. It just may help consumers put things into perspective.
This is pure speculation, but I think it would go something like this:
CEO: "Okay. Let's get real here. Just in case you were in a coma for the last 25 years, airlines have done nothing but lose money. In fact, since its beginnings the U.S. airline industry hasn't made a dime. Quite the contrary, it has lost billions upon billions. And why? Because of you.
"That's because whenever we raise fares to a profitable level, you stay home. Or you take the damned BoltBus. Or you drive to grandma's house (did you miss the memo that driving is 100 times more dangerous than flying?). Please. Airfares, since the 1978 deregulation legislation that nearly killed our airline, are a freaking bargain.
"Over the past umpteen decades, whenever we sold you a ticket, on average we lost money on the deal. Exactly what would you have us do? All of us go out of business? Yeah, well have fun taking BoltBus to Paris.
“You complain that we’ve been nickel and diming you. But guess what? You’ve been nickel and diming us ever since deregulation. If one of our competitors has a fare a couple of dollars less, you fly them, not us. You have no brand loyalty. All you care about is price, not comfort, or legroom, or service, or even frequent flyer miles.
“So what did we do? We eliminated service. We cut salaries, pensions, and benefits. We merged with our competitors. No more little plastic wings for the kiddies; if you remember those, then you remember that the cheapest—and only--roundtrip coach fare from New York to Los Angeles in 1959 was about $1,800 in today's dollars. And if you remember that, then please stop whining about the fees.
“Without those fees, we’d still be losing money, even after raising fares. And you know what happens if we lose money year after year? We declare Chapter 11. Or Chapter 9. We merge with another airline, which gives you less choice when you fly. Or we stop flying altogether. And fewer airlines mean even higher fares and less choice.
“Can we agree on just one thing? If your neighbor moves, you aren't going to pay for it, right? No, of course not. So why should you pay for the jet fuel consumed by someone who’s carrying a 60-pound suitcase when you just have carry on?
“Because that's what you've been doing all these years. You've been paying for all those folks who think they need 20 pairs of shoes when they fly to Vegas for the weekend. You paid when Fluffy got out of his cage and bit the guy in 23C (but trust me, your in-cabin pet fees didn't cover the six-figure settlement, let alone the legal bill). And you've been paying for the lady who spends an hour tying up one of our phone lines looking for the cheapest fare to Boise, and then buys the ticket from one of our competitors on Orbitz. That’s why we charge $25 now to talk to a reservation agent.
“Let the people who use the services pay for the services. Don't want to play? Fine. You don't have to. No one's forcing you to book the rows with extra legroom. Take the seat we assign you. Don't check bags. Don't change your travel plans and expect a free pass (the Yankees don't let you switch game dates if you change your mind, so why should you hold us to a higher standard?). And don't pay the lousy $6 to watch our inflight satellite system with 24 channels of live TV. So what if we paid a small fortune to install it.
“No, flying isn’t what it used to be. It’s faster. And safer. If our flight attendants and pilots are a bit grumpier, that’s your fault. We’d have preserved their pension plan if we could have afforded to, but you refused to pay us what it actually costs to fly your butt.
“And by the way, if your next flight is delayed, that’s your fault, too. This country’s World War II-era, radar-based air traffic control system is antiquated. A New York City cab has a more modern navigation system than this 757 we’re flying on. We’ve been lobbying for years for a satellite-based Next Gen GPS system that will reduce delays and allow us to save fuel and keep fares low. But you don’t want to pay for it with your taxes or fares, and we can’t afford to. Write your senators and representatives and tell them to cough up.
“It’s been nice chatting. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to this biography of the Wright Brothers. You know, the guys that got us into this mess in the first place.”
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.