A memo to airline passengers

If you don’t want to pay what it’s worth, then stop whining about air travel.

I won’t take credit for that pithy remark. It was made by a travel editor friend of mine, the New York Post’s David Landsel, over Thanksgiving dinner.

But it’s been ringing in my ears ever since.

Because let’s face it: we’re not paying enough for commercial air travel. Airlines have cut costs to the bone, slashing pay, eliminating services, deferring new planes, hedging jet fuel purchases, and all the rest. And yet they’re still losing billions.

But while the cost of most everything else we buy, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has gone up (notable exceptions being things like TVs and phone service), the price of air travel has gone down over the last several decades.

Back in the early 1960’s, when a gallon of gas cost 29 cents, a flight from New York to LA could be bought for as little as $250 round-trip. Today, you can fly that route for as little as $178 round-trip when there’s a cutthroat sale going on, but that gallon of gas costs 10 times as much. A brand new Ford Pinto cost $1999 in 1972. And that $250 flight, in 1960 dollars, works out to about $2200 in 2009 greenbacks.
For some odd reason, and I’ve never heard a rational explanation for this, North America’s airlines can’t seem to price their product at what it actually costs them to deliver it.

Experience has shown them that when they raise fares to profitable levels, people simply reduce their flying, and that impacts the entire travel industry-hotels, rental cars, attractions. Because, let’s face it, most air travel is discretionary. Few people have to fly to Hawaii unless it’s to a funeral or to attend college.

And so instead of raising prices, airlines have cut costs, wages, seat pitch, and perks such as meals and pillows. And that’s resulted in cramped and dirty planes, cancelled routes, and grumpy employees and passengers. But what, exactly, do you expect when you pay more for the round-trip taxi ride to the airport than for your flight to Chicago?

Look, I’ve built a career and an award-winning airfare web site on telling people about insanely low airfares. And I love my work. But honestly, when I see a $98 round-trip fare from New York to Denver, I shake my head, and I feel a little guilty. Am I helping the situation by telling folks about how desperate the airlines can get sometimes? It’s like stealing candy from a baby, not that I’ve ever done that. Or at least I don’t think I have.

One way that the airlines are trying to achieve pricing power, frankly, is by reeling consumers in with ridiculously unprofitable fares and then hitting them with all these new fees for checked bags, pets, itinerary changes, and frequent flyer ticket redemptions. But even that hasn’t returned them to profitability. All it’s done is generate thousands of newspaper headlines. Speaking of which, enough about those holiday surcharges already! So the airlines are trying to lose a little less money. Give them a break!

Eventually, and who knows when, the party has to end. Fares need to go up, or we’ll see more airline mergers and Chapter 7 filings. And then fares really will go up. But meanwhile, perhaps it’s time to face reality. Sure, air travel isn’t fun anymore. Sure, it’s a PITA. But just as surely, as crappy as it is sometimes, this is what you and I told the airlines we wanted by voting with our wallets. So maybe we should all just stop whining or get used to paying a fair price for airfare.

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.