I am an experienced traveler, both as a businessperson and as an individual. This year, even with Covid, we traveled to Canada twice, England, France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and Botswana. Last spring, I drove my father and uncle to California to visit family, a 4,000-mile road journey. I am writing this blog while traveling on a large cruise ship going south to Victoria, British Columbia as part of a seven-day family Alaskan cruise. Seven months into 2022, I have flown 24 different flights and had numerous Covid tests required for international entry. Travel is part of my DNA. My weekly Bible study group regularly asks “Where is Ken today?”
During my lifetime, I have seen improvements in travel. Cars are much safer and more comfortable. As a child, I traveled in an unairconditioned car without seat belts or a child’s protective seat. Today, my SUV is fuel-efficient equipped with a navigation system and climate-controlled seats. Cleaner electric cars are now becoming more widespread as our nation transitions off hydrocarbons.
Public transportation is more prevalent and cleaner. Many city buses run on cleaner fuels and are spacious. I use Uber and other car services to go to the airport or attend functions where parking is difficult. We traveled around London using our Uber app and the service was convenient. Our drivers were courteous and helpful. We didn’t need to flag down taxis or take packed underground transportation that would have made us nervous with Covid counts still high.
With all these improvements in travel, it is puzzling that commercial air transportation has not improved overall. Air safety has certainly improved, primarily due to technology which reduced human errors. However, the air travel experience has declined to the level that I dread going to the airport. Given that competition is supposed to drive efficiency, innovation, and customer satisfaction, why has air travel service declined?
First, the pandemic was certainly a factor. I traveled to Rwanda in January 2021, our first air travel since the start of the pandemic. DFW airport was nearly empty. It was eerie walking through empty security checkpoints and deserted walkways. Our long-haul flight to Doha was about a third full. Without government subsidies, commercial airlines would have gone bankrupt. Many airline employees were either furloughed or retired. New hirings were frozen and expenses reduced. After people were vaccinated and international travel resumed, pent-up demand came roaring back, and the airlines were unable to respond. They overbooked flights and then were forced to cancel, leaving passengers scrambling. The pandemic did cause problems, but the airline service issues started well before the pandemic.
Airline service started dropping when the federal government deregulated the airline in 1978. I remember this change when my college air travel from Corpus Christi to Denver became less expensive. Airlines cut costs and merged when the commercial airlines had to compete. As the cost of airline travel reduced, more people traveled by air which expanded the number of flights, increased terminal volume and baggage handling. The added safety screening resulting from the twin-tower 9/11 attack increased carryon restrictions which added to travel time and baggage handling.
Then, discount airlines offered low fares eliminating frills, such as free food and beverages, assigned seating, and free baggage handling. Airline seats became smaller with less leg room so more passengers fit into airplanes. While prices have reduced, airline travel is more uncomfortable and stressful. One just needs to watch old movies and see how far the airline service has declined. Scenes of nicely dressed men and women being attentively serviced by stewardesses are a distant memory. Today, stressed passengers worry about delays, lost luggage, and their personal safety because of angry fellow passengers. In addition, airline travel takes longer than it did forty years ago when one adds all the various extra steps during the journey, including flight and baggage delays. Personally, for shorter journeys, I prefer to drive which gives me a sense of control and is definitely more relaxing and peaceful.
When we flew back to Austin from South Africa, we stopped at London Heathrow. We landed early Sunday morning and walked through Terminal 3. I was astonished to see the terminal packed to capacity at such an early hour. This was the beginning of the summer travel season and it only got worst. Heathrow later forbid airlines from booking new short-haul tickets to or from Heathrow during the summer.
Pandemic staff and supply chain shortages have added to a stressed commercial airline business. Today’s competitive airline business offers lower prices, but it comes with a personal cost: there is no free lunch with lower prices.
So how do passengers deal with stressful air travel? First, travel less and drive more often. Enjoy airline travel more by doing less airline travel and using the savings to pay for more comfortable, direct early morning flights which are less likely to have issues. Second, pack lighter and board early. This gains you overhead storage space and time to relax before takeoff. Third, smile and treat your fellow passengers and airline employees with courtesy and respect. It might make a bleak day better and in return, your fellow travelers might treat you respectfully. This is a time to show Christian love when surrounded by the suffering traveling community. Airline travel will hopefully evolve to higher standards, but until then, Christians are called travel to with the highest standards, even while airline standards are generally low.