Airlines: The Industry We Love To Hate

Guests

Clive Irving, senior consulting editor, Conde Nast Traveler
Joe Brancatelli, editor, joesentme.com

The emergency landing of a Southwest Airlines plane Friday came at a challenging time for the airline industry. Customer complaints jumped nearly 30 percent in 2010, even though airlines have made improvements in on-time performance and baggage handling.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

A report released today shows that airlines lost fewer bags last year, did not overbook flights as much, and arrived on time more often. Even so, customer complaints to the Department of Transportation went up nearly 30 percent.

If measurable performance like on-time flights and lost bags are better, why do so many still hate the airlines? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you work for the airlines, we want to hear from you too.

Later in the program, on the Opinion Page, we begin a series on reducing the federal debt with a nonpartisan look at the numbers. But first, the airlines. And while we wait for your stories, we want to check in on the problems with Southwest.

On Friday, a Southwest flight from Phoenix to Sacramento made an emergency landing after a hole opened in the roof of a Boeing 737-300. Aviation expert Clive Irving is a senior consulting editor for Conde Nast Traveler. His piece, "Why Planes Fall Apart," ran Saturday on The Daily Beast. And he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

And we've been hearing a lot about metal fatigue and issues with aircraft skin. You wrote that we know exactly what happened to Flight 812.

Mr. CLIVE IRVING (Conde Nast Traveler): Yes, we do know. This is a very understood and familiar event, where you get a small fatigue crack in the skin of the plane, and if it's been undetected, as it clearly was in this case, that can weaken the structure.

And what happens when a plane climbs to altitude is that there's a gradual change in the pressure inside the cabin and the pressure outside the cabin. Most airplane cabins are pressurized to the equivalent of 8,000 feet, which means that once the plane's above 8,000 feet, there's an increasing differential between those two pressures.

So by the time it gets to cruise, which could be 34,000, where this event happened, or, say, 36,000, it's like a balloon where the pressure inside the balloon is greater than that outside. And if the skin of the balloon bursts, then the air escapes from it. That's exactly the phenomenon that happened to this Southwest Airlines 737.

CONAN: And it goes by the scary name of explosive decompression. If what happened is known, if the phenomenon is well-understood, is prevention well-understood?

Mr. IRVING: Prevention ought to be flawless, and it clearly isn't because obviously if this happened, even when there's a regime in place to specifically check 737s of this age for that condition - because there's a record of this happening - which means, I think, first of all, that the regime is not rigorous enough, and secondly, it's not frequent enough.

CONAN: And part of the - is part of the problem the fact that Southwest, like a lot of airlines, does a lot of its maintenance overseas?

Mr. IRVING: I don't think you can connect those dots quite so easily. I am reluctant - I don't want to sound xenophobic. It doesn't follow necessarily that if you ship maintenance overseas that it's going to be done less well than it would be in the U.S.

I mean, obviously it's being shipped there because the labor costs are far lower. It doesn't mean the competence of the people doing the tests is any less.

But what really matters here, and this is the responsibility in the first place of the airline, what really matters is how well those maintenance checks which are done, how closely they're supervised.

In the case of Southwest, they do a lot of - the major checks in the life of an airplane are called heavy maintenance, and Southwest do it -we don't know yet if the last check done on this plane was done in El Salvador, but in fact Southwest does do a lot of its heavy maintenance in El Salvador.

And I believe that the airline has, say, two people down there all the time supervising these checks. But you have to remember that this business is intensive, and they work three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It takes around nine hours to check each plane for these cracks. The problem is that the technology used is designed to react to known problems in the metal, not necessarily, so far, unknown problems in the metal. It's far too arcane a subject to go into in any detail, but that's the basic situation.

So what we need to be worried about here is we're not picking up, in the earliest stage, if there's a flaw in the skin of the airplane. And every incident of the kind that happened on Friday should be regarded as a precursor to a possible crash. I think there's far too much complacency in saying: Well, the plane got down okay and Southwest has an impeccable safety record, which it does. In 40 years it's not lost one passenger.

CONAN: Not one in flight. The other part is they fly one type of plane. It's one of the reasons for their success, their business model. They fly the 737 in various models. This plane is among its older planes.

Mr. IRVING: Yeah, well, you've got a conjunction here of frequent flying, every day - each plane in the fleet probably flies six or seven flights a day. What matters crucially in terms of the decompression is the number of times the pressure changes each day, because that is what, in the end, adds up.

It adds up in a way that causes metal fatigue. So you've got that, the number of times these Southwest planes are flown each day, and then you've got the age of the plane. In this case, the plane was 15 years old.

It had done about 46,000 cycles - a cycle is a technical term for takeoffs and landings per day - which is a very high number of cycles for a plane of that age. And so it means that it's almost certain, from this episode, that we need to have more frequent checks on not only planes of that age but maybe younger planes too.

CONAN: And the fact is they seem to have found cracks. After they grounded that whole fleet of 737-300s over the weekend to inspect more closely, they found more cracks.

Mr. IRVING: Yeah, I think that's quite alarming too. I think, in a way, there's a paradox here, which is fascinating, which is that because there are so few serious crashes now, because the safety regime is so effective, that we've become tolerant of close calls. And this was certainly a close call. But my question is: How close do you need to get?

CONAN: Just before we let you go, we wanted to ask you about another flight today, a United flight from New Orleans to San Francisco that turned back and landed in New Orleans again after takeoff because the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit. This plane was an Airbus 319. Any idea of what may have gone on there?

Mr. IRVING: No, but I've noticed this, that every time you get a major episode, like the one on Friday, a lot of other incidents, which normally would not be reported, do get reported because there's a sort of alertness to it.

CONAN: Increased sensitivity to these kinds of stories.

Mr. IRVING: That's right, yeah, yeah, a kind of vigilance.

CONAN: Okay, well - I lied. One more question: What is the NTSB going to be looking for - the National Transportation Safety Board - when they look into this Southwest incident?

Mr. IRVING: Well, they're going to be looking at the effectiveness of the maintenance checks. I mean, that's the basic thing. And the - you just had a story earlier about the NTSB...

CONAN: And bus crashes, yeah.

Mr. IRVING: Dealing with bus - the NTSB is stretched very thin. They have to cover basically every incident involving transportation. People don't realize that they're not just dealing with airlines.

And I think we depend a lot on - their integrity is very high. They have very good people there, and they should be making recommendations on the basis of what they find, in this case to the FAA, which is a far more bureaucratic and slow-moving organization.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for your time today, appreciate it.

Mr. IRVING: You're welcome.

CONAN: Clive Irving is senior consulting editor for Conde Nast Traveler. He joined us from our bureau in New York. You can find a link to his piece in The Daily Beast on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

As we mentioned earlier, the airline industry got more bad news today, a study that shows that though airline quality has moved in some measurable areas, air passenger complaints have jumped. Joe Brancatelli is the editor of joesentme.com, a website for business travelers. He's also a business travel columnist for Portfolio.com and joins us now from New York. And nice to have you with us today.

Mr. JOE BRANCATELLI (Joesentme.com): Thank you, Neal, it's always a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: So when people are getting bumped less often, they're arriving on time, and their bags show up when they're supposed to, how come all those complaints keep going up?

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Well, part of the problem is, Neal, is that if you look at the statistics, the statistics tell facts, not the truth. You know the old line that that they said about Mussolini, at least he got the trains running?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Well, the way he got the trains running was to jigger the schedule so that there was more - the same trip took more time.

CONAN: Ah.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: The airlines do the same thing now with their flights. I'm old enough to remember the days when I could fly from Los Angeles to New York on the redeye overnight, and I would leave at 10 o'clock and be on the runway in New York at 5 o'clock.

Now the flight at 10 o'clock gets in at 6 o'clock, and it's on time, because they've added an hour to the - the airline industry calls it block time. So they can solve that problem, of timeliness, by just adding delay time into it.

CONAN: Well, what about the bags then?

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Well, the bags situation now, in fairness, they have gotten slightly better in handling bags, in what they call mishandled bags, because they would never admit they've lost a bag. It's called mishandled bags.

But part of it is also for the last three years the airlines have begun to charge for the privilege of checking a bag. So fewer people are checking bags.

CONAN: Ah, so there's fewer bags to lose.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Exactly, and also the systems are not as stretched. As you were speaking with Clive, the NTSB being stretched, the commercial airline system is stretched so far beyond capacity. My bad metaphor, but it works, it's like putting six or seven pounds of sugar in a five-pound bag and being shocked when the bag breaks.

CONAN: We're talking about why so many people still hate the airlines, even when measurable performance has improved. Our guest is Joe Brancatelli of joesentme.com, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Suzanne(ph) is with us from Fernandina Beach in Florida.

SUZANNE (Caller): Hi, Neal, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SUZANNE: I'm a flight attendant on what is called a regional airline. Now, we fly the smaller jets, but I will end up often on a flight that is three to four hours long, which doesn't sound very regional, if you think about it. And the planes don't have TVs, and they don't have headphone jacks. I think people get upset when they get on planes like that.

In addition, those sized planes don't accommodate the large rollerboards. So you have to check them at the plane and pick them up when you get off. That's actually a nice thing, but people don't understand it, and they get very frustrated.

When you add that up with TSA, for people that aren't accustomed to going through security, that can be really confusing and difficult. So I think you buy a ticket and assume you're going to be on a plane at least the size of a 737, and you get on a jet that only seats 66 people, and you're flying from, I don't know, Columbus, Ohio, to - let me think, what I have done really that's really a long flight? Hmm. I don't know, I can't remember offhand, but...

CONAN: I bet you've got a Tampa in there.

SUZANNE: Yeah, you're three and a half hours on that plane with one lavatory. It's economical, but those planes weren't designed to go that far.

CONAN: Suzanne, thanks very much for the call.

SUZANNE: That long. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. We're talking about the airlines and why, despite some improvements in measurable performance, so many of us still hate the airlines, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

These are challenging days for the airline industry. Fuel prices are climbing. Many passengers are waiting nervously to find out what caused the fuselage in a Southwest Airlines plane to break open on Friday. And while more flights arrive on time and more often bring your bags along with them, more passengers are complaining.

We're talking with Joe Brancatelli, the editor of joesentme.com and a person who's a travel columnist for portfolio.com. If all those things are getting better, how come so many of us still hate the airlines? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This email from Christopher: I hate flying for a number of reasons, none of which has to do with a fear of heights. One, I am treated as if guilty simply because I bought a plane ticket. They frisk people, scan bodies and dig into personal belongings. Two, the fees for things that were once a given: pillows, water and a suitcase.

I found that trains are still and now everything that airplanes once were: simple, no hassle, open to both financially and on a personal-invasion level.

So the TSA invasiveness, of course there's a reason for that, too, Joe.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Oh, absolutely, and the TSA is a real problem. The fact that we all know the Transportation Security Administration just by the acronym TSA is bad enough. That's a sure sign that we're unhappy with that. But the problem is, of course, that was essentially, literally a creation of a post-9/11 world, where we decided we wanted the federal government to take care of our security on planes because it was a matter of national security. So that's - we can talk about that endlessly.

CONAN: Oh yeah.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: I wanted to go back a minute just to what Suzanne told you.

CONAN: Oh, the flight attendant on the regional airline.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Right, the flight attendant for a regional airline, which is airline code for commuter carrier, which is airline code for tiny plane.

And first I would say this: I would never do Suzanne's job. You, Neal, would never do Suzanne's job. It is a brutal - the poor woman, as you heard, couldn't even remember where she flew.

But she missed the basic point about why people hate flying on her airline with her, no matter how lovely she might be: The planes are small and uncomfortable.

You get what the industry calls pitch, which the rest of us would call legroom, 31 inches, which is knee-crunching, quite literally. And then, in this day and age, when every seat is full, you no longer have an empty seat next to you to spread out a little bit.

So you're in cattle-car conditions. But the airline industry itself is so oblivious to that very simple fact that Suzanne didn't even bring it up. She was telling you about long flights and the TSA and the issue with what bags get done to you...

CONAN: And lack of TV and headphone jacks.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: And headphones and TVs, all wonderful. But she's so inured to it because she has to deal with it every day. And if she's a tall woman, she might not even be able to stand straight up in the fuselage. This is the first part of the problem - you're flying in a cattle car on most flights on most days in this country.

CONAN: Let's get Mike(ph) on the line. Mike is calling us from Rockton, Illinois.

MIKE (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MIKE: I'm trying to say this as delicately as I can. I think some of the - I know a lot of stewardesses are very nice and very pleasant, but it seems like some of them are a little bit on the older side now - I don't know how to say that politely, and they're quite rude.

CONAN: What should age have to do with anything?

MIKE: Well, it just seems - I knew this was going to sound awful. I'm sorry. It just seems like some of the younger stewardesses are a little bit more relaxed, a little bit friendlier. And some of the other airlines I've traveled on - not in the States, out of the States - they seem to have, I don't know if it's an age limit, but it just seems like the stewardesses are just more polite.

And I'm sorry to say that. I mean, I don't know how to say it delicately, and I apologize to all the stewardesses out there that are going to take offense to it.

CONAN: The first thing they're going to say is flight attendant, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE: Oh, I'm sorry about that, flight attendant.

CONAN: But Joe Brancatelli, is there - is this simply a factor of increased workload?

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Part of it is, and part of it - it's good that - Neal, that Mike couldn't say it delicately because what he's talking about is a situation that goes on in this country that actually bothers me a lot.

Years ago, we decided we would not discriminate against people based on age or looks or weight. And in the good old days of flying, which thankfully something predates me, you always had a weight limit to be a flight attendant, or, as they said, a stewardess. You had to look a certain way, and by the time you hit 30, your days were over.

Well, you know, I'm happy, actually, we live in a country where that's no longer allowed. And I would say if that's what you want, as he said, some other airlines out of the country, i.e., mostly Asia, you know, do pick their flight attendants the same old way.

Yes, with age and experience comes maybe not quite as polite a manner as you would like or something like that. But you know what comes with age and experience? Age and experience. And if that hole rips out on the next flight, and there's a hole to the sky in the fuselage, I want a flight attendant who's been around and might have a couple of years and might not be as thin as she used to be or he used to be but know what to do in an outrageous situation like that.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate your candor.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Dave, and Dave's calling from San Francisco.

DAVE (Caller): Good morning, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Okay.

DAVE: I'm a - I travel in an airplane every week, going from Baltimore to San Francisco. And like you were talking earlier about, we get better because - just because we change the nature of the statistics that we use. I think what we're doing is changing the nature of the people who are measuring and complaining. We just like to complain more.

I'm flying every week for the last 10 years, and the experience that I find is that people are just less patient. The airlines I think are doing a fine job. I get a seat, I get to where I'm going. It's just that I think we like to complain a lot more. I think the airlines are doing a pretty decent job.

CONAN: And obviously a very frequent flier.

DAVE: Yeah, I'm a very frequent flier, every week.

CONAN: And after a while, do people on that flight know you? I mean, you must pretty much take the same airlines all the time.

DAVE: I see the same (technical difficulties) times. You know, you get the nods of acknowledgement and those types of things.

CONAN: Well, Dave, thanks very much for the call, and I wouldn't do what you do, either, whatever it is and however much you get paid.

DAVE: It makes - it's a living, I'll put it that way.

CONAN: Okay. Joe?

Mr. BRANCATELLI: And perhaps what Dave didn't mention to you, as I was sitting there, thinking, yeah, well, Dave is my kind of reader because that's the kind of life I live and the kind of people I write for. Dave doesn't tell you that he has very high status at at least one and perhaps two airlines so that he's treated totally differently, as I am, as a frequent flier and a status frequent flier. That doesn't mean I say I'm one. The airline recognizes me as having flown 25,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 miles with them.

I get a totally different experience than the average customer. We are given upgrades. We are given passes to clubs to wait out delays. We are given first priority for our free flights when we claim it in our frequent flier program. We get to board the plane first.

We live a slightly different life than the average customer and most average customers are the ones doing the most complaining. Business travelers have such obscure complaints, I wouldn't waste the time telling you about them, Neal.

CONAN: Here's an email from Alex: I can't stand the opaque pricing strategies. For restaurants and stores, you can see what something will cost. For airlines, the pricing is more akin to buying a used car. Also, there's an utter loss of personal privacy. For that reason, my next trip in two days will be by train.

Well, we've already talked about the personal privacy issue. Pricing strategies?

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Ah, yes, the inexplicable, unjustifiable, totally unable-to-understand-it pricing strategy. This is part of the business traveler's complaint because, well, the flip side of all the nice things we get, we also pay more than the average customer.

The problem is the airlines live and die on a simple mantra. They will charge you as much as they think they can charge you. There is no - you cannot talk to an airline pricing executive and say: What does this seat cost today? Because they don't know because if there's a plane of 150 people, 130 are probably paying a different price.

That infuriates customers at both ends of the scale, because someone who flies from coast to coast and got a $99 fare one day wonders why the next time it's $999, and the business traveler who always pay $999 wonders why that person sitting next to him got a $99 fare.

CONAN: Wasn't the tradeoff for airline deregulation supposed to be cheaper flights? And yes, we have to accept that, you know, those frills like blankets and pillows, they're not going to come with anymore.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Yes, well - well, you know, what we originally - you know, the man who was basically considered the father of deregulation, Alfred Kahn, just recently died. The last time he spoke before Congress, which was only about two years ago, he said the technical term for the industry we now have is called stupid. He said that's what we economic experts call it.

But he would also tell you, as I've spoken to him many times over the years, that he had never expected the airlines that existed at the dawn of deregulation in 1978 would still be around today.

The industry has had an amazing ability to adapt, even while losing tens of billions of dollars, and one of the ways they've done it is to segment customers in a pricing regimen that's very difficult. Everybody gets the worst service, but everybody doesn't pay the same price for that service.

CONAN: Those airlines that were around when deregulation started are called legacy airlines.

Here's an email that references that from Kim in San Francisco. In a couple of weeks, we're going to be flying a legacy airline, and we dread it. We've become completely spoiled by Virgin America and JetBlue where we have our choice of entertainment and Wi-Fi on board. Perhaps, many of the complaints are that the legacy airline prices are higher; the plane is older; the accommodation is antiquated by today's standards. When we've made complaints to the legacy airlines, those complaints have been brushed aside. Conversely, last week, we wrote a letter of thanks to Virgin America for the superior service we were given on a last-minute roundtrip.

Do different airlines get rated differently by customers?

MR. BRANCATELLI: I think they do. There is an absolute strata. I mean, it's interesting we're talking about Southwest Airlines in a different context today, but Southwest Airlines is, by general acclamation, the easiest, simplest, quote, unquote, "most reasonably priced airline."

And there's a reason why people believe that, Neal, whether it's true or not, is everybody seat, every flight, every day, every route, you know exactly what you're getting from Southwest. As you said, they fly only one type of aircraft.

JetBlue, a new airline, young fleet, they've gone a different way -leather seats, free TV, little more legroom. Virgin America, even newer than that, have added some frills to that.

They're the new competitors in the field, and you can get some advantage from flying them. On the other hand, they do not have first-class cabins. They do not fly internationally, and they do some other things in ways that are less good for the customer. It's all what you choose to fly. You can't fly Virgin America everywhere.

And, by the way, Virgin America has not made money yet on a long-term basis. So you're flying an airline that's hope - betting that it can succeed by having the investors throw money at it.

JetBlue makes money. Southwest has always made money. So you could make the case that the only airline that really works in this country is Southwest. It's the only airline that always makes money.

CONAN: Just a slight correction, I think, JetBlue does fly to the Caribbean, so that does count as international.

MR. BRANCATELLI: Yes. We - I'm sorry, Neal. That's me talking in industry jargon. Generally speaking, when we say internationally, we mean across an actual ocean, not just the Caribbean.

They do fly into the Caribbean and into Mexico, as does Southwest now have some connecting service. Virgin America flies to Toronto. We can't ignore our Canadian friends. But the airlines that fly across oceans are still the legacy carriers, whose names you recognize from the '70s.

CONAN: We're talking with Joe Brancatelli, the editor of joesentme.com, a website for business travelers about, well, why we still hate the airlines after a survey showed that measurable performance had improved. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Carmen on the line. Carmen with us from San Antonio.

CARMEN (Caller): Yes. I was calling to bring up an issue of flying that I heard the other callers. First of all, I want to thank the flight attendants and the pilots from the flights I've traveled on. They've always been very excellent, and I've done a lot of flying.

The only concern I have recently is issues of missing flights. When we fly from San Antonio, you normally don't have a direct flight, and they usually - it seems to me the time between your flights to get to your Dallas or Houston seems to be shorter now, and so the higher chance of missing flights.

Two times in the last year, I flew first class, paid first class. And the flight to San Antonio got us delayed because we got stuck 30 minutes in the - what you call, in Dallas where they call - they're waiting for the plane to get to the terminal, and we just feel that - is there any study shown that more people are missing flights because they're leaving in a hurry. They're on time. They're looking good. But what happens to the customers who have to get those connecting flights that weren't our fault because the airline was delayed from the first flight because of them.

CONAN: Yeah. And you always know, Joe, if your plane lands at Gate A-1, your connecting flight leaves from ZZ-26.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Absolutely. One of the problems that the airline industry faces is distribution of passengers. It's very difficult in an airline industry to fly nonstops between major destinations now because it's so expensive.

The concept of hub, i.e., gathering a bunch of passengers from - called spokes in smaller cities - and then bringing them in a big hub city like a Chicago, which has been a hub since railroad times, and then redistributing again, is a very complicated and complex matter.

The airlines want to keep the planes flying. They only make money when the plane is in the air. And as Clive told you in the earlier interview, you know, the Southwest flights make six or seven flights a day sometimes because they go point to point only.

So the airlines in a way - in a reason to make some more money, sometimes cut the connection time down to too far that you could actually make it in the real world. While they're expanding the schedule time, you know, it's like now a five-hour flight takes six hours in the real world, they cut down the connection time. So that there's one small problem, you've miss your flight.

CONAN: Carmen, thanks very much.

A quick email from Carey(ph) in Santa Rosa. My mother works for a discount airline and comes home with ridiculous stories describing the unimaginable ways people act on the airplane. While people want to treat flight crews like waitresses that we forget they are there for safety reasons, not for personal service. Please remember when the flight attendant doesn't bring you a second round of drinks with a smile.

And let's see if we get one more caller in, and this is Larry. Larry with us from Sheridan in Oregon.

LARRY (Caller): Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. I think making a connection at ZZ-26 is tough, try to make it to ZZ-27. I'm a corporate/charter pilot, so, obviously, I have ulterior motives here. But I wonder if maybe we should just adjust our standards for what we expect from the airlines. And I think that's a big successful part of Southwest, is we have a lower expectation of frills. And if we look at the airlines across the board that way, I mean, we're more comfortable with what they're providing.

CONAN: Joe Brancatelli, we should all expect no more than a bag of peanuts and maybe a bad joke.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: Could be. First of all, thank you for flying us safe. Pilot, I mean, we do not say thank you often enough to the people who, as your emailer said, they're there for our safety.

The problem is the airlines tell you that they're there for another reason. And as to this Southwest point, that goes to my point about the consistency - every seat, every flight, every day, every route, you know exactly what you're getting. So the airline manages your expectations, and your expectations cannot be any different than what you've always seen.

The other and especially the legacy carriers, they fly different planes with different configurations and different levels of service on virtually on every route, and it's hard to know what you should be expecting to get.

CONAN: Larry, thanks for the point.

LARRY: Thank you. Have a good day.

CONAN: Okay. And, Joe Brancatelli, thank you for your time today. I think I just heard your computer go off: You've got mail.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: I've always got mail, and thanks for the time, Neal. It's always a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: Joe Brancatelli, editor of joesentme.com, a website for business travelers and a business travel columnist for Portfolio.com.

Coming up on The Opinion Page, what to do about the deficit and the debt. All week, we're going to hear ideas on how to cut that enormous federal debt. Up first, a proposal from Steve Bell with the Bipartisan Policy Institute. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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