Wow. I’ve been writing this column since 2003, and readers have never been shy about sharing opinions. Last month I posited a simple question, “Airline backlash: Are Americans flying less (or not at all)?” Boy, did you respond. In record numbers! In fact, I received more than three times the feedback I ever received for any column, more than 160 emails in all, plus dozens of online comments.
It’s an understatement to say this column hit a nerve. I think it tapped into an unexplored and undiscussed phenomenon — that record airline passenger loads would be significantly higher if flying wasn’t such a hassle. Your responses made it clear there’s a huge demographic of mostly silent passengers deliberately opting not to fly.
Make no mistake, plenty of Americans continue to book airline flights. In fact, we may have entered the domestic airline industry’s busiest summer season ever, to the tune of 246.1 million anticipated passengers in June, July and August. But last month I also reported the U.S. Travel Association estimated Americans avoided 32 million trips last year, which cost the domestic economy more than $24 billion.
Just before Memorial Day, Airfarewatchdog announced flight searches were down 35% since the same weekend last year, and released a poll of more than 1,200 travelers that found 54% weren’t planning to travel during the holiday. I reached out to spokesman Nevin Spearman, and he conducted a follow-up poll of 1,350 travelers that showed the following just before Memorial Day:
• 57%, not traveling
• 24%, driving
• 16%, flying
• 3%, bus or train
I made this point last month, that other travel modes — including cars, buses and trains — have been posting larger percentage increases. And although many of you noted I didn’t detail the many reasons Americans are fed up with air travel, the column kicked off intense discussions about topics I have written about before—everything from baggage fees to tight seats, and TSA lines to overcrowded airports.
The sheer outpouring of opinion underscored how avoiding flying has become such a hot button issue, and there’s nothing anecdotal about such universal condemnation. As Angela Schwartz wrote, “I thought we were unique when we drastically cut back our flights this year. … Thank you [for the column], which reassured us that we are not alone.”
I’ve spent weeks reading your responses, and I’ve aggregated many of your opinions. Consider:
• electing to drive and take buses or trains was repeatedly cited, as was the need for high-speed rail service in America
• airline fees and tighter seats topped your complaints, with many readers providing their height and/or weight while describing the misery of economy seating
• a common refrain was that we’ve become “livestock” or “cargo”
• besides complaints about airline personnel, there was much frustration about rude fellow passengers, with one reader terming such bad behavior a “societal breakdown”
Dozens and dozens of emails detailed disgust with the airlines; as one reader wrote, “I would be happy if I never had to get on an airplane again!” Common refrains included the terms “hassle” and “fed up” and “hell.” One reader who requested anonymity cited numerous complaints about flying and then stated, “I’d rather remove my own gallbladder with an oyster fork.”
What follows are other significant trends.
• Grounded fliers. An extraordinary number of readers cited their previous frequent-flier status — gold and even platinum. Some racked up 1 or 2 or 3 million miles. And yet so many ex-road warriors hardly fly at all now.
• Clipped wings. As a former airline employee, I was struck by how many other ex-employees weighed in, including several retired pilots who stated they now avoid flying. Perhaps only fellow aviation geeks can appreciate just how extraordinary this is.
• Cold turkey. Several readers have stopped flying altogether. One reader said, “I’ve gone from six to eight flights a year to zero.”
• America not first? Quite a few world travelers praised foreign airlines while giving low marks to U.S. carriers. One reader wrote, “Maybe this is an American problem and not global?”
• Security woes. There also was widespread discontent with the TSA; Renee Beeker, co-founder of Freedom to Travel USA, an organization that opposes “illegal, warrantless” searches, stated: “Your observations are not anecdotal.”
• Flying solo. Two readers took matters into their own hands — by building their own airplanes! Another recently chartered a private jet with 12 friends, calling it more expensive but enjoyable.
• Discontent isn’t universal! Well, not entirely. By my math, 98% of readers were unhappy, but that 2% was just as vocal in telling me to give the airlines a break. One summed it up: “Stop whining. Settlers didn’t complain as much about their covered wagons as you do about air travel.” I didn’t respond that seat pitch was roomier on covered wagons.
The sweet spot
Last month I noted how I drive or take Amtrak or buses more often now. Dozens of readers shared their formulas for when to fly — and when to drive or seek other transportation (or avoid traveling altogether). For Dan Oltman of Nebraska, he elects to drive on trips of six to eight hours by himself, and 10 to 14 hours with his family. He stated, “I avoid flying at all cost.”
Airline executives should take note, since the decision to drive encompasses more than just short-haul trips. One couple reported driving from Illinois to California to “avoid the hassle” of flying. Another reader now spends holidays at home rather than traveling.
Total travel time seems to be the critical factor, not mileage. My analysis of the sweetest spot found travelers avoid flying if the drive is about 10 hours. Some readers’ thresholds were six hours or eight hours, yet others cited 12, 15 or 18 hours, all the way up to two days. One summarized it this way: “Eight hours or less: road or rails.”
What lies ahead?
I could fill ten columns citing your specific complaints about the airlines and the overall flying experience. But there’s a Yogi Berra-ism worth invoking: “It gets late early out here.” The larger questions seem to be: Despite population growth, do long-term trendlines indicate the airlines’ customer base is eroding? And have industry consolidation and lack of government oversight emboldened airlines into taking their customers for granted?
It seems you the people are either not being heard or you’re being heard but ignored. So for the airlines, it may indeed be getting late early.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.
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