OPINION: Washington Times Gets it Wrong – Airlines Do Not Suck

United Airlines Boeing 757 at LAX

In April, the LA Times posted an anti-airline story that got me going. Now, the Washington Times has the airline business all wrong and I can’t stay silent. Armstrong Williams, who wrote the story,  seems to mostly be a political correspondent, but decided to use his experience of flying to talk about the airline biz.

In a nutshell, Williams argues that airlines are in a race to the bottom. That they are some how all working together to provide the worse service possible to passengers, while earning the most money possible. Many of his arguments are weak and mis-informed, but they seem to be common arguments you see in the media against airlines. I think it is time to stand up to some of these points:

WILLIAMS: No, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the airlines. Also, the utter agony and different standards for every airport of what can and can’t pass through security screening is baffling.

MY RESPONSE: Wait, how can the blame solely land on the airlines, but it also sucks at the airports? This is the only mention of hating on something other than the airlines, but he doesn’t mention that airport security has nothing to do with the airlines and everything to do with the US government. At least we can both agree that airport security is slacking.

WILLIAMS: When do you last recall getting a meal or a cup of coffee without having to hand the flight attendant a major credit card? The seats are smaller, more uncomfortable, certainly more dirty than they have ever been… Want a blanket? That’s $5, please. Want to watch TV? Another $5, please.

MY RESPONSE: Ah, the common argument that the airlines are packing the people in and charging for everything. Those evil, evil airlines, right? What Williams forgets to mention is the drop of average airfare for people flying around the country. Plus, food, drink, blankets, in-flight entertainment all cost the airlines money. If I do not want these amenities, why should I pay for them in my airfare? Sounds like Williams wants the cheaper fares and all those amenities that used to come free with lower fares.

WILLIAMS: I’ve flown to New York only twice from D.C. since 9/11, and the Acela train is my only mode of transportation to and from the Big Apple. The Acela is truly a rare gift from heaven and Earth when you think hard and long about future travel plans.

MY RESPONSE: We agree here — partly. I think taking the train to many east coast destinations makes sense. No big check-in process, no TSA and less hassle. Odd how Williams doesn’t seem to mention that meals in First Class on the Acela line is free, but people not in First Class have to pay for their food. Why doesn’t he get upset that he doesn’t get free food and drinks on the train, yet expects it in the air?

WILLIAMS: To add insult to injury, major air carriers either don’t seem to notice the plight of travelers or don’t seem to care. What they care most about is fleecing your wallet for the cost of your airline ticket.

MY RESPONSE: Why do so many people feel that airlines are not caring about the passengers? Sure, there might be some airlines that are less about a passenger’s well being versus profit, but surely not all of them. Plus I think Williams and many others forget that airlines are not charities. They are in the business to make profit and grow. Making profit (which has been difficult for many years for airlines) is not a bad thing and shouldn’t be treated like it. There is a lot of competition between airlines and if you do not like how an airline does something, do not fly them. However, you might find that cost of your ticket and level of service might be closely related — are you willing to pay more?

WILLIAMS: When oil spiked at more than $155 per barrel years ago, airlines were first in line to complain they were going under if they couldn’t increase fares. They added surcharges for baggage to help defray the costs of the additional fuel. Today, oil is hovering around half the price of its all-time highs. Are the baggage fees gone? Heck, no.

MY RESPONSE: Airlines lost a lot of money with 9/11 and the high oil prices and many went into debt or filed for bankruptcy. Although at this point most airlines are doing quite well, they need to pay back their previous debts. I have no misconceptions that these fees would go away. If passengers keep paying them, why should airlines remove them? Airlines do not function in a vacuum and just make up fees that hurt their business. Passengers continue to pay them and airlines make money off them.

WILLIAMS (quote from an AOL travel article he uses): “But what you may not know is airlines are now considering flying during the holidays a privilege, and have instituted a surcharge for traveling on peak days. This ‘premium’ fee of $10 to $30 is added to the cost of your ticket if you fly throughout much of December and the beginning of January. Be wary of deceptively cheap fares, as these tickets are often driven up by add-on fees for holiday air travel.”

MY RESPONSE: Supply and demand. Why the heck wouldn’t airlines charge more for tickets during busy times versus non-busy times? It is about being a smart traveler. Watch your final costs and make sure they are what you were expecting. That goes with any business.

WILLIAMS: Signs now warn, “Doors close promptly 10 minutes before takeoff” so carriers can cancel seat assignments for confirmed passengers and offer them to standby passengers. At the same time, flight delays are at near-record highs, with average lapses inching toward hours, not minutes.

MY RESPONSE: Wrong! Did he even look at airline delay statistics before writing this (I can tell you no, actually read-on he admits he didn’t either)? In 2010 there were more on-time flights seen since 2003. I am sure if Williams was a stand-by passenger waiting to get home early to his family, he might have a different opinion. Airlines do not have boarding rules just to screw over passengers. It is to make sure that planes leave on time so they do not get delayed and upset more passengers.

WILLIAMS: Come to think of it, have you noticed that all the airlines seem to have adopted their own “race to the bottom”?

MY RESPONSE: No, I have not. I have seen new low cost airlines offering amenities like LiveTV and in-flight internet. Heck even the legacy airlines are starting to provide more amenities to passengers to keep up with the smaller airlines. Airlines are trying to give passengers what they want: cheap prices and amenities, which is a difficult combination.

WILLIAMS: Maybe I’m just complaining. I haven’t really offered statistics or any economic models to support my claims. But do I really need to?

MY RESPONSE: Yes Williams, you do need to. I know I am “only” a blogger, but I surely do not post things that are inaccurate (at least I try not to and quickly update when it is pointed out to me). I prefer not to just join in common hype against airlines and spread hatred for an industry that doesn’t deserve it.

WILLIAMS: I still take flights that make a refugee camp look like Club Med in terms of seating. I still have to pay resort-style prices for quickie-mart quality food.

MY RESPONSE: Seriously? I am pretty sure that millions of people who have had to live in a refugee camp to survive would have a VERY different opinion than you. The amount of room you now have in airlines (compared to years ago) is directly related to consumer’s demands for lower fares. If you can fit in more seats, you can charge less per seat and still make more profit. If you want an airline experience like it used to be, pay for First Class. You will find the cost of a First Class ticket now is pretty comparable to what economy tickets used to be during what many people see as the “golden age” of airline travel.

Okay, I think I feel a bit better at least. Even though it seems obvious that Williams is misinformed and just doesn’t care, it bothers me since so many will share his opinion. I wish more people would take the time to learn about the industry before hating on it. I plan to email Williams and connect via Twitter, hoping he can learn a bit more about the airline business. If he responds, I will be sure to post an update, but I do not have high expectations.



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