Taking the fun out of flying?

The airports have largely rebounded from the low point of 2001-2005. TSA creatures are less deliberately odious, and the quality of the cabin service is slowly creeping up again. That said, look at any 1960s or early 70s movie that shows air travel in passing and you will see a great difference in the pleasantness of travel. All the improvements have been technological — speed, in-flight Internet, and most of the declines social — the security theater, the tired and often cranky attendants. Prices have dropped somewhat, usually in concert with painful reductions in seat dimensions.

I am quite curious why US airlines (with the notable exception of Southwest) have worse service than most European airlines. The food is certainly inferior, as are entertainment and the attitudes of the staff. Is it the union correlation or something else? I have not flown on Asian airlines yet, but I hear much more positive reports. The most pleasant flight so far has been out of Vieques island — no TSA involved at all…and I was very eager to get off that third-world location. The next leg of the flight through San Juan, Puerto Rico was the usual TSA idiocy combined with an extra layer of INS and border patrol aggravations.

For some reason, landing in Prague or Dusseldorf is a much friendlier experience than returning to the “land of the free”, even though I was merely a visitor there while a citizen in the US. The US has improved from 2005 to 2012-13, but still lags far behind in politeness and lack of intrusiveness.

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17 Responses to Taking the fun out of flying?

  1. Frank W. James says:

    Overall I would agree with you on the declining service with the exception of my personal experiences with Delta. I’ve flown almost a dozen times over the past year and all things considered (the items you mention with the security/kobuki theater), Delta’s personnel have been exceptional.

    However, my experiences with United and USAir have been the pits and I refuse to fly with SouthWest because of their seating policies. Yet, the worst airline has to be United, because every time I’ve flown with United THEY LOST MY LUGGAGE! WITHOUT EXCEPTION!!!! It’s got to the point I refuse to fly UNITED even when someone else is paying for the ticket…

    All The Best,
    Frank W. James

  2. K says:

    Was: Home of the brave. You need to be somewhat brave to be free.
    Now: Home of the cowards. The .000001 percent chance that I
    get blown up is worth getting my butt fondled by a government minion and
    being treated like cattle.

    The NSA dust up may signal we could be emerging from the mist. Let’s hope.

  3. Matthew Carberry says:


    Europe is relatively small, people have more reasonably short travel time options at lower prices. If you want passengers you need to provide a reason for them to pay more for the small time savings of flight over train.

    In the US, flying is more of a necessity to get anywhere, there are fewer reasonable travel options to cross our distances in any reasonable amount of time. Conversely planes all travel the same speed and the fixed costs of operating a plane interstate mean that there is only so much competition that can happen between airlines on anything but service. Notice that flight even into the ’70s was pretty expensive, the service difference required to differentiate your airline from another competitively could be built into that cost. Opening flying to the masses meant that “cushion” for service necessarily had to be sacrificed. Planes became a “bus” analog.

    International flights are different due to less traffic/fewer potential customers, normally with more money, and you are in the planes longer, so there is room to build competitiveness and “value-added” comfort that travelers are willing to pay for.

  4. Tom Lamparty says:

    The best experience I have had flying was on Kenya Airways. More comfort, better service, though the beans at breakfast was different! 😎 Nairobi Airport on the other hand was not much to brag about!

  5. Bob G says:

    Spot-on! You could also mention the infamous “No-Fly List.” How you get put on it: classified. Who’s on it: classified. How to get removed: classified. I assume that the error rate on the N-FL is consistent with the incompetence displayed at other levels of the federal gov’t. Even the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was stopped (or at least delayed) because his name was supposedly on the list. Grrr.
    Dirty Bob

  6. The obvious (and politically correct!) hypothesis is that European airlines are better because they have…competition! The average trip is shorter, and the rail network much better, so something other than flying is an easy choice for more trips there.

    My impression is that prices haven’t just “dropped somewhat”; I think they’ve gone down tremendously. I seem to recall that it cost me about $300 round-trip to California in 1972 — nearly exactly what I was paying 2005-2008 when I did it every month for Sun. Now adjust for inflation….

  7. Hugh Davis says:

    Because most European carriers are owned at least in part by the government giving them mega deep pockets to afford nice things and pleasant people.

  8. jimbob86 says:

    Flying has not been fun since Pan Am died …….

  9. khamosh says:

    The handling of the no-fly list is the height of idiocy. That was made plain when a sitting US senator made it on there because he had a similar name to someone else.

  10. Lyle says:

    America has for decades been a primary target for social engineering, i.e. social rot, degradation and demoralization?

  11. PawPaw says:

    I’ve only flown once since NSA started delivering its tender ministry at the checkpoint. I won’t fly anywhere if there is a road, rail or a boat going that direction. Flying used to be fun. Not anymoe

  12. Ancient Woodsman says:

    Most of my flying on commercial airlines is arranged by the federal government. I’ve had somewhat good luck with Southwest, Delta, and U.S. Air, but absolutely have to echo the above sentiments about United. It’s never fun to try to explain on your travel voucher why the bag charges are so freaking HIGH, especially when you are traveling on an emergency ticket for the feds. Most of the airlines and especially United seem to have absolutely no sympathy with the fact that you are traveling as a result of a national priority for something that is not going well for someone somewhere else.

    Small regional carriers seem to do rather well for my purposes. I’ve had best luck in the U.S. with Sierra Pacific and Alaska Air. Evergreen has some good notes from some of my cohorts; I just don’t have any experience with them.

    However, hands-down the BEST airline I have EVER flown with in the past 40+ years has to be Air Inuit from Quebec. Small regional airline for sure (think “Sandpiper” from “Wings” but in three languages). They have well-maintained equipment, they are on time always, the staff is excellent. Frankly I’ve had an easier, less stressful life professionally because of them. I have no interest in and am not related in any way to that company but from my experiences just had to share that on this continent there are some airways that are very, very good.

  13. Tama Paine says:

    Giant corporations do what is profitable and what they can get away with.

    Starting in the 1980s the model in the US became: cattle cars for the masses, comfort for the spendy. Rather than a reasonable standard of service for all.

    There are a lot of people who will cash out what we used to call middle class service and standards of living. For some it’s expedient, for others it’s profitable.

  14. Stretch says:

    American airports are equally poor in comparison to foreign ones.
    Dulles Airport (IAD) that serves Washington, DC has a currency exchange that’s open only bankers hours … and not at all on weekends. And the few times I’ve tried to use it the staff seemed to pull exchange rates out of their … ear.
    And, NO, the airport shops will NOT take foreign money.
    There are also very few foreign language services at IAD.

  15. tired dog says:

    Lots of comments re United here. As to the bag charges, marketing considerations probably nixed straight up ticket increases and finance demanded an extra $20 per ass in seat this year, ergo bag charges, ‘economy plus’ xtra cost seats, etc. The revenue goal has been met.
    As to grumpy employees, toss it off to still simmering Conti vs UA team resentments. It ain’t the pay, the stewardesses make good $$ and the pirates even get paid time and a half if the ‘have to’ deadhead in the middle seats that (in economy plus) are good enough to charge the customer extra for.
    Now put your seats in the upright uncomfortable position and brace for impact.

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