Image: Airline passenger
Kevork Djansezian  /  AP
Customers are unhappy, stockholders are nervous, management is desperate and union workers are furious. Who is to blame for the airline mess? Look in the mirror, columnist James Wysong says.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 8/15/2007 1:39:21 PM ET 2007-08-15T17:39:21

Hang around the airline industry long enough and you hear stories of the Good Old Days. In the Good Old Days, CEOs were selfless, employees were cheerful and passengers dressed up to fly. Management and union workers got along like family, and stewardesses cooked eggs-to-order in first class. Airlines cared about people, not numbers, and every flight was a wonderful travel experience — even in coach. Or so the story goes.

Does anybody actually remember the Good Old Days? Were they ever a reality? I don't know. All I know is that when I look at the airline industry today, I see nothing but dissatisfaction. Customers are unhappy, stockholders are nervous, management is desperate and union workers are furious. Flying is no longer a gracious extension of personal service, but a desperate, numbers-driven game in profit and loss. A cattle car might serve just as well.

How did it get this bad? And who is to blame? Greedy unions? Greedy managers? Some officious bureau of the government? Yes, all of the above have some share in the blame. But I have recently taken a harder look at another villain, who also bears some responsibility for this mess. And that villain is you.

Now, before you slam me in the "Comments," hear me out.

Circumstances have changed since the Good Old Days of air travel. More people than ever choose to fly if their journey is over 300 miles. Southwest Airlines, the only U.S. airline success story in the last 10 years, met that new demand with a simple business plan: provide safe, low-cost air transportation with flexible schedules and new airport destinations while offering as few amenities as possible. You, the American public, responded so favorably that the major airlines had to redesign their operations to accommodate your wishes.

Now, guess what matters most to American travelers when it comes time to buy an airplane ticket. No shocker here — the price! In fact, the big three factors are price, schedule frequency and frequent-flier miles. Customer service is way down on the list. That's why the airlines have cut everything possible, including personnel, salaries, pensions and onboard amenities: to keep the ticket price down — just as you asked for.

Now, I'm happy to criticize airline executive management every chance I get, but in fact these overpaid CEOs are just dancing to the tune of their airline's shareholders, who have the same bottom-line mentality as their customers: Keep the price down, keep the numbers up, and watch the profits grow. They aren't at all interested in your travel experience, just in the numbers. They don't even care if their cut-rate service drives away business. Why not? Because they know that all the other airlines are in the same boat. So what if you get fed up with US Airways and switch to Delta? Chances are some other disgruntled customer is switching the other way. Numbers? No net change!

As far as executive compensation goes, if you were the CEO of a billion-dollar company, would you give up your millions and your golden parachute to show solidarity with the front-line workers? I'd like to say that I would, but you just don't know unless you are in that situation.

What can you do? Well, you do have a few options:

1. Know what's important to you and stick to it. Seek out an airline that tries to give you what you really want from air travel, then stick with it. If enough travelers do this, it will send a message to the top in the form of black ink or red ink. But fair's fair: If low price is your priority, you forfeit the right to complain about service.

2. Lower your expectations. In the Good Old Days, when air travel was more of a novelty, people had lower expectations and were delighted with higher performance. Today, your main consideration should be having a safe journey between point A and point B. If you are resigned to a few hassles along the way — like delays, cancellations, small seats and packed airplanes — you will probably be better satisfied with what you get.

3. Accept reality. The Good Old Days are gone for good. Accept it and move on, or quit flying altogether.

Here's a short analogy. When was the last time you pulled into the "Full Serve" line at the gas station and had your gas pumped for you? Is this service even still available? Well, if it is, I can guarantee you that not many people use it. So most gas stations have trimmed the fat and the frills and now strive to offer the lowest gas prices in town. Once in a while, up pops a company like WAWA gas stations (not crazy about that name) with low prices, tons of coffee, courteous staff and tasty food. If you can find an airline like that, stick with it — even if its prices are sometimes a little bit more than the ones next door.

As far as the Good Old Days go, time has a way of obscuring the bad and glorifying the good, making the true past unattainable. It helps me to remember this about the airline industry: As in all of life, the Good Old Days weren't always good, and today may not be as bad as it seems.

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