Air travel stinks

Interesting article in Yesterday’s Washington Post on the deadly awfulness of air-travel.

Essentially, domestic air-travel stinks. Airports are crowded, inconveniently located, intrusive, impersonal and the concessions are ridiculously overpriced. Flights are overbooked, late, crowded and the food (if there is any) is offensively bad. Airline customer service is unresponsive, rude, arrogant and incompetent.

And airfare isn’t cheap either. Rising oil prices and increased security costs are partly responsible for keeping the cost of air travel high. But the airlines are also dealing with rising labor costs, over-capitalization, aging fleets, and rising airport fees.

Unfortunately, there’s no real relief in sight. Small and nimble airlines like Southwest, Jet Blue and SkyBus can be much better than the old guard airlines, but they don’t service all areas, have limited flights, and (with the exception of Skybus) are rarely less expensive than the major carriers. And all still overbook their flights.

To make matters worse, air travel is too time consuming. Short “commuter flights” often take longer than driving (once travel time to and from the remote airport, flight delays, airport baggage collection, boarding rules and security are all taken into account); an hour-and a half flight can easily take five or six hours from start to finish. Flying cross country almost invariably means losing an entire day.

A big part of the problem is the “hub” theory of air-travel. Major airlines have regional “hub” airports that they route the bulk of their travel through. This radically increases travel time for passengers that need to endure hours of sitting between flight segments and it can increases airline costs as well. When a 10 minute weather delay hits a major airport, it can result in hour-long delays for hundreds of flights. Taxi time is 20 to 30 minutes at very large airports and, of course, the landing and gate fees are higher. Parking, security, concessions, service… they’re all usually easier at smaller airports.

Some airlines (like Southwest and Skybus) try to avoid the major hubs and offer cheaper, faster routes to the smaller airports. But these routes serve only a small portion of national traffic, and some (like Skybus) only really work for a relatively small number of people. (At least as of now. I can only hope that Skybus grows and expands into other markets.) Smaller airports serve smaller populations and it’s more difficult to expand regu

The problem is compounded by the fact that aside from taking the family car, there is no viable alternative to air travel in the U.S.. Taking a bus over any significant distance is an exercise in torture, and Amtrak isn’t much better. (Amtrak is also absurdly expensive. Try pricing your next trip through Amtrak — it takes longer, the connections are worse, and it’s significantly more expensive.)

So what are to do?

Unfortunately, there just aren’t any easy answers. Additional regulation will only increase costs and decrease flights. Additional deregulation won’t make a significant difference because major carriers don’t make much profit anyway, are beholden to all kinds of hidden subsidies, and are all over-capitalized (they just don’t have many places left to cut costs). Moving away from the giant airport model will take decades as entrenched political interests make airport competition nearly impossible. And ultimately, oil prices are probably not going to fall significantly.

The large airlines are doomed. Large airplanes need long runways, and in a world where madmen want to use airplanes as bombs, access to those runways will remain restricted and tightly controlled. That means that airlines can only fly into large airports, and large airports (for innumerable reasons) will remain scarce and largely remote. Airlines will suffer the same fate that passenger rail traffic has suffered. Air travel takes too long and is too expensive. And finally, it only offers fixed-route service; airlines don’t bring passengers to their destinations, they just take them to other airports. A two-hour flight to Orlando, for example, is only the first leg in the journey. Getting to DisneyWorld takes another two hours. I’ve spent longer in the taxi home from Logan airport than I did on the plane coming in.

We live in an increasingly personalized world, and we demand increasingly personalized service. Small airlines understand this and will last longer and be more successful than the large airlines.

If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s probably room in the charter air industry for a savvy entrepreneur to pick up some traffic. A large network of private jets could be organized into a faux-airline. A number of microjet “air-taxis” could be integrated into a kind of air-jitney network…. The key would be to keep fuel costs down and better allow the market to set the price. If it were possible to reduce costs enough, the network could conceivably compete with the major airlines for general public travel dollars.

The key to a successful air-taxi service would be a sophisticated tracking and booking solution that gave customers a simple pricing mechanism and a clear, easy-to-understand seat allocation system. It would need to be a system that tracked current openings, and current routes, and that allowed for maximum flexibility. Both operators and passengers should be able to see and to affect current demand with operators coming in to add capacity in a crowded market, and passengers bidding up requests to attract operators. I’m picturing a match-making system that allows both customers and operators to see demand, routes and prices in real-time.

Of course, I’m sure it’s all illegal.

As for me, I’m driving if I can.