Why Do Americans Bother To Fly Over The Holidays?

Airline travel has become unpleasant — what with long lines and numerous fees. Linda Wertheimer talks to Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly about the business behind air travel, airlines and airfare.

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Many Americans begin their holidays with travel, and complaining about that travel is quickly becoming a favorite national pastime. Long lines, small seats, hidden fees for everything from carry-ons to a can of Coke - the list goes on. To help us understand why this is the new reality, we reached Seth Kaplan. He's the editor of Airline Weekly.

Mr. Kaplan, good morning.

SETH KAPLAN: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Why is travel by air regarded as so unpleasant today? And why are airlines so unresponsive - in some cases, downright hostile to the frustrations their customers feel?

KAPLAN: Well, I think it's largely a question of expectations. Flying has now become democratized, like so much else. It's something that far more people can afford to do, and that far more people do because fares are so much lower, because airlines have removed a lot of things that they now see as optional services. And if they offer them at all, they charge for them.

WERTHEIMER: Your feeling is that the very best thing the airlines have to offer, at this point, is safe and cheap. Let's talk about cheap because when you try to book a flight, it's very hard to tell if you're really getting cheap - because there's the quoted fare, and then there are all these fees, and there are all these taxes - which, in some cases, cost more than the actual ticket. And customers don't necessarily know that until they pull up to the gate and find that they're not, in fact, going to be able to travel as inexpensively as they thought.

KAPLAN: Yeah. And this is another question of expectations and a legacy of how things used to be.

WERTHEIMER: Well, but the expectation that you're going to pay X because the airline said that's what the fare was, and then you find out that that's not true, that's an expectation that everybody has about everything - if you know the price and pay the price.

KAPLAN: Airlines were actually unique among different kinds of businesses that we all patronize, in that they long included all sorts of things that, if you were inventing the industry today, you wouldn't do any of that. If you were starting in the industry today, it would never occur to you to provide food and drinks as part of the service with air travel. You would probably charge for all those things - just as trains do, just as all kinds of businesses do. But that's how it used to be, and that's a legacy of...

WERTHEIMER: You know, I think you're overstating this used-to-be thing and the legacy factor. I mean, most people alive today have never had good service from airlines.

KAPLAN: Well, again, it depends on what you define as good service. If you define good service as safe, reliable, on-time transportation at a reasonable fare, well, apparently, it's about as good now historically as it's ever been, and that's why more people are traveling.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think any of this sort of bad feeling that people have about flying nowadays is going to change?

KAPLAN: Well, I think that it will stabilize. I think that consumers have been through a lot these past few years. So, you know, I think people will get used to this, and they're probably not going to complain to the same degree several years from now about these same things, you know, because we'll just all be fairly used to this.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think there's any possibility, or any merit to the idea, that airlines might compete on the basis of service as well as price?

KAPLAN: Well, when we think about, you know, JetBlue providing complimentary in-flight satellite television - and many others offering things like that - you know, they are competing on service, to one degree or another. The airlines that only compete on price are the exception, not the rule. You know, having said that, certainly, you know, our definition of what makes good service might have changed over the years. But most are still trying to attract customers based on something other than price alone.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Kaplan, thank you very much.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Seth Kaplan is the editor of Airline Weekly.

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