The Glory Days Of Air Travel Are So Over

I recently opined that the days of cheap flights are ending, and air travel might once again become a luxury. An optimistic reader commented, “I welcome the return to luxury travel of the seventies.”

I don’t think so. Flying may well become a luxury, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever going to be luxurious again. Not in coach, anyway.

I think the best we can hope for in coach is that it won’t get any worse. That’s because the increases in fares have been driven entirely by the cost of fuel. Sure, you get what you pay for – and we’re paying to burn very expensive oil.

This is what inflation does. It raises prices while quality declines.

Passengers will pay what they must, but most are not willing to pay more for comfort and service. If a ticket that used to cost $250 now costs $500, we simply won’t pay another $100 for a pillow, meal service, more leg room or any other convenience. We’ve proven that again and again.

So airlines have no incentives to buy new planes or hire additional staff. They have no reason to reconfigure aircraft for greater comfort, or to weigh down planes with entertainment systems. That’s especially true on routes where profit margins are slim or non-existent and price competition is stiff.

But it’s different up front, in first class and business, especially on international routes. There’s still profit in those routes, and lots of it if airlines can keep the expensive seats up front full. So they compete on service and amenities, including lie-flat beds, game consoles, even private cabins. 

There’s an idea that a shakeout in the industry will reduce price competition and leave airlines to compete on service in coach once again. But that won’t happen until the airlines are profitable and flying with lots of empty seats in the back of the plane. And that seems a very unlikely combination.


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