As any air traveler knows, flying today bears no resemblance to the relatively luxurious experience of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, air travel in the twenty-first century is deeply unpopular from the passenger viewpoint. The reasons why are explained by Mark Gerchick, aviation consultant and former FAA and DOT executive, in Full Upright and Locked Position: Not So Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today.
The book consists of ten chapters and an extensive bibliography. The first three chapters provide an overview of the current state of the airline industry. The reader is reminded that pre-deregulation air travel was not unpleasant, if not as glamorous as sometimes portrayed. While acknowledging the major upheavals in aviation between 1978 and 2001, the author points out that even bigger changes have occurred post-2001. Examples are the commoditization of air travel, the reduction of supply to meet demand instead of competing to offer more flights, and the unbundling of services, adding fees to the basic fare. The contradictions are striking. Air travel has never been safer or more dehumanizing. The technology is amazing, yet airlines are now mass transit, bound by strict rules and rigid processes. The goals are tight schedules, operating efficiency, and revenue maximization to the detriment of customer service.
The airlines’ safety record is thoroughly examined with ample supporting statistics. According to Gerchick, more than 3 billion people flew on US airlines from 2007 through 2011 with 50 fatalities, all in a single regional airline crash. In spite of this record, 30 million Americans admit that they are anxious flyers. Chapter 4 describes the aura of airline pilots, the “disembodied voice behind the steel door.” The pilot’s reassuring messages from the [End Page 268] cockpit about “a little turbulence” are designed to calm passengers while giving minimal information. An inside-the-cockpit view portrays the boredom of flying, struggles against sleep, and constant complaining about schedules. Indeed, pilots are sometimes seen by their employers as angry whiners.
Chapter 5, “Fares, Fees, and Other Games,” probably the least readable chapter in the book, attempts to explain the myriad pricing schemes faced by passengers shopping for fares on the internet. After dropping from 1995–2011, air fares are now rising 4–8 percent per year and the FAA predicts continued rising fares for the next 20 years. In addition, baggage fees and other charges have created new revenue streams for airlines. This chapter does shed light on fare codes and “fare buckets” that allow airlines to maximize revenue and load factor.
Some of the most disturbing aspects of air travel are included in chapters 6 and 7. There is no question that being a passenger for hours in a flying tube can be unhealthy. The hazards include respiratory issues from stale air, bacteria in close quarters, and blood clots resulting from inactivity. This list is followed by horror stories about planes sitting for hours on the tarmac and the effect on passengers and crews. In most cases there is no real DOT investigation of these incidents. DOT simply collects data about these delays and passes it along to the airlines. There is much opportunity to improve regulations and enforcement of consumer rights in our air travel system. Regulators have historically been charged with both promoting civil aviation and regulating safety with no real oversight of customer service. Further consolidation means less competition so a little more regulation may be in order.
The last three chapters of the book cover the pleasures of first class and business class and a look into the future. The author describes business class as “the absence of pain” with the seat as the biggest differentiator. In other words, we are not going back to the glamorous days of air travel unless you can afford a private flight or a ticket on Emirates Airline. Thanks to 9/11 and the TSA there are no more “daddy moments” for weary arriving travelers. Surges in jet fuel will continue to...