Why people aren’t flying. (Hint: It’s not just the fares)

Think that all airlines are losing business during the recession? Not quite. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways saw their traffic jump 9 and 10 percent, respectively, in September, while United’s was down 6 percent. Other airlines suffered traffic declines as well. Could it be that consumers are flocking to airlines known for having better service (e.g., JetBlue’s extra legroom, free snacks, and live TV) and lower fees than most of their competition (Southwest has lower fees across the board where they do charge a fee)? Is one reason the airline industry is in such dire shape because the product has deteriorated to the point where people just don’t want to fly at any price?

A recent reader poll by Consumertraveler.com crowned Southwest as respondents’ favorite airline, with 71 percent saying that service was the reason why. The same poll revealed that “comfortable seating” was the main reason consumers who chose JetBlue as their favorite did so.

Airlines are losing money ($11 billion worldwide this year, according to one estimate), fewer people are flying, and, despite capacity cuts, the average fare paid is going down. Now one would think that if you have fewer seats to sell you’d be able to charge more for those remaining. But while scarcity pricing works in most other industries, it appears not to in air travel. The airlines park planes in the desert, but fares stay the same on most routes or go down (depending on which statistics you believe, average ticketed fares have fallen about 20 percent this year compared to last, far more than prices have dived in most other industries). So why is there insufficient demand for air travel?Sure, the recession is part of it. And, let’s face it, most travel is discretionary. Other than attending funerals and weddings, visiting dying relatives, going off to college, or making mission-critical business trips (a technician traveling to repair an ailing nuclear plant), flying somewhere is simply not a life and death affair. Vacationers can stay home, drive, or take the bus. Business folks can seal deals by phone or email, or videoconference, even though doing so is usually less effective.

Airfarewatchdog believes that a lot of people aren’t flying because, to put it bluntly, flying is a big PITA. If air travel were a better experience, we believe, more people would take to the skies, even at higher fares. But, of course, improving the product will cost money that the airlines don’t have and we’d all have to pay higher taxes to fix our antiquated air traffic control system.

To test our theory, we’re running an admittedly unscientific poll asking readers, “If you aren’t flying as much as you used to, what’s the number one reason why?” The options are:

  • “Fares are too high”
  • “I’m afraid of losing my job”
  • “Air travel is a pain what with all the delays and fees”
  • “None of the above”

With over 1500 responses so far, 44 percent have answered that fares are too high, but almost as many (41 percent) aren’t flying because it’s just a big fat bother.

But it’s not just the raw numbers that are interesting. We also asked for comments, and that’s where things get revealing. I think we got one email complaining about high fares (not surprising since fares are trending down), but dozens lamenting the sorry state that air travel finds itself in. People are, to put it mildly, fed up.

Paul Schrodt writes from Columbus, OH, “I used to fly during the winter months to Florida. Now, because of fees and other airline shenanigans I just drive, and enjoy the trip a whole lot more. Let’s let the airlines suffer until they come to their senses again!” Whew.

To be fair, several respondents complained about hassles beyond the airlines’ control. Joseph Kraatz of Oceanside, California, spoke for many when he wrote, “By the time I drive to the airport, find a parking space, get to the terminal, then go through the ridiculous inspections, I have wasted 3 hours. I can drive to Las Vegas in six hours and arrive way before my flight. Is there something wrong with this picture? You bet there is. People should completely stop flying on trips of anything less than 1000 miles.”

But others have stopped flying simply because it’s an uncomfortable experience. “Airlines have crammed more seats into their flying aluminum cans,” one reader laments. Another gripes that seats are “as thin as cardboard” and that he has taken to riding the bus for trips of less than four hours. “The bus seats are much more comfortable and the travel time is comparable. I also get to see a bit of the country side and I’ve yet to have a bus fail to leave the terminal on time.”

But perhaps the reader who summed it up best was the one who simply noted that, “flying just isn’t fun anymore. It’s an ordeal–uncomfortable, crowded, and unhealthy.”

So what’s the answer? Re-regulation? Higher fares? Fewer airlines? Allowing foreign carriers to serve domestic routes (imagine flying Singapore Airlines nonstop from New York to LA)? One thing is clear: airlines can’t go on forever losing billions. Something has to give. And until airlines are profitable again, they probably can’t afford to make flying with them a more pleasant experience. You want friendlier airline staff? Stop cutting their pay and benefits. Comfier padded seats? That will burn more jet fuel, so be prepared to pay for it. And so on.

Even I don’t fly as much as I used to. I travel frequently between my home in New York City and Boston, sometimes more than once a month. And although I created a site called Airfarewatchdog, I usually take the train. The only thing that enticed me to fly recently was a sale on JetBlue combined with a 20 percent promo code discount, bringing the tax-included round-trip fare to $66. But on the train I get more legroom, two-by-two or even single seating, no lines, no hassle, and because I travel the route often, free upgrades to first class, where I’m served a hot meal at my well-padded seat by friendly attendants. It’s almost like flying…used to be.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.