Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Miracle of Flight Has Never Been Cheaper

There's been a lot of complaints lately about air travel because of crowded planes, fees for checked luggage, security lines, etc., and there's a lot of nostalgia for the good old days of free food, no extra fees for baggage or anything else, half-empty planes where you could often get 2 or 3 seats to yourself, no security issues, etc. But I don't think anybody is too nostalgic for the airfares of yesteryear, which were 66% higher in 1993 at an average ticket price of $541 (in 2010 dollars) compared to today's average air fare of only $326.  That's an average savings today of $215 per flight compared to the average airfare in 1993, and an average savings of more than $100 per flight compared to the average airfare in the 1990s (1993-1999, data here and here).     

I couldn't find average airfare data before 1993, but it's probably safe to say that the average, inflation-adjusted airfares of 2009-2010 are the cheapest in history, in case that's any consolation for your recent inconveniences while travelling by air.   

And any time you're really depressed about your air travel experience, watch Louis C.K.'s video "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy," which you can now watch on your laptop while flying on an airplane that has Internet access, and be thankful that you're sitting in a chair flying through the air in the sky, because of the "miracle of human flight."
         
Update: According to this source (thanks to Jet Beagle), "The average airfare dropped by more than one-third between 1977 and 1992 (adjusting for inflation).  That would mean that the average airfare in the late 1970s was around $800 (in today's dollars). 

21 Comments:

At 8/08/2010 10:52 PM, Blogger sethstorm said...

Except that when you do fly, you get treated like cattle. Cheap yes, but a decline in quality.

No, even Southwest is not exempt from this.

 
At 8/09/2010 12:23 AM, Blogger Jason K said...

Hate to be picky, but I think its a bit silly to call flight a miracle. It's just physics.

 
At 8/09/2010 1:35 AM, Blogger Sophia and George said...

How about the per-mile-flown price ?
Could it be that Americans are flying, on average, shorter distances because road congestion got worse or trains got worse ?

 
At 8/09/2010 1:46 AM, Blogger Ron H. said...

"Except that when you do fly, you get treated like cattle. Cheap yes, but a decline in quality."

How can a person in your position afford to fly at any price? Does your off the books job require you to fly? What's your address? I'm calling the IRS.

get a job, sethstorm

 
At 8/09/2010 4:59 AM, OpenID American Delight said...

re: cattle... The most "undignified" aspect of air travel is security screening which you can thank your federal government for, not the airlines themselves.

 
At 8/09/2010 5:28 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

Here's a little bit of information about airline prices from 1978 deregulation to 1992:

"The average airfare, for example, dropped by more than one-third between 1977 and 1992 (adjusting for inflation). It is estimated that ticket buyers saved as much as $100 billion on fares alone. Deregulation also allowed the proliferation of smaller airlines that took over the shorter routes that were no longer profitable for the big carriers. In sum, the major airlines probably suffered the negative consequences of deregulation the most. New smaller airlines and the millions of passengers flying gained the most."

Source: U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission

Southwest Airlines, which now carries more U.S. domestic passengers than any other airline, was one of those smaller airlines which thrived in the deregulation era.

 
At 8/09/2010 5:38 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

Sethstorm: "even Southwest is not exempt from this."

Sorry, but you are mistaken. Southwest Airlines has continuously improved the flying experience for its passengers. Their boarding process no longer requires long waits in line. The gate furniture and fixtures are significantly more comfortable than 20 years ago. The leather seats on the aircraft have been praised by passengers. Despite the challenges of enormous growth, they have managed to continue treating passengers and employees alike with the utmost respect. Southwest Airlines has not declined in quality, and surveys of passengers proves this to be true.

Sethstorm, you are entitled to your opinion about Southwest Airlines. But many millions of Southwest passengers disagree with you. I know because I have seen the surveys.

 
At 8/09/2010 6:01 AM, Blogger Colin said...

Now if we could just deregulate like the Europeans...

http://reason.com/archives/2005/01/01/fly-the-frugal-skies/print

 
At 8/09/2010 7:25 AM, Blogger juandos said...

Hey Jet Beagle in this particular topic I do believe that to some degree sethstorm has a point...

I've been in the airline buisiness since '76 (a year before the Carter administration deregulated the airline industry) and the quality of certain facets of the airline experience has been degraded, most of it driven by the passengers' desire for cheaper fares...

People are getting what they pay for mostly...

I'm 6' 7" and in excess of 340 lbs and have been since I started airlining...

Consider this: Airline Seating

I've personally noted that seats and leg space have gotten smaller, lack of meals and snacks, the necessity to pay for soda or even water, and what is my personal worst, 'charging the customer for checking luggage or in some cases bringing in onboard'...

In each and every case though the changes were cost driven...

Now there's an external factor in the cost of flying, that of the government yoke on private enterprise:

Government-Imposed Taxes/Fees on Commercial Air Travel

Its NOT a pretty picture...

 
At 8/09/2010 7:50 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Ron,

I thought for sure Sethstorm would advocate mandatory first class upgrades for anyone who demands it.

 
At 8/09/2010 7:52 AM, Blogger Mark J. Perry said...

Jason K: If you watch the Louis C.K. video, you'll see that I was quoting him.

 
At 8/09/2010 8:31 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

juandos,

I've also been in the airline business for a long time.

Where I disagreed sethstorm was about Southwest Airlines. Anyone who knows that airline well knows that its quality of service has improved sharply over the past three decades.

You are correct that airlines have traded free meals, expansive pitch, and other passenger comforts for cheap fares. The market has spoken loudly. Every time an airline attempts to revert to pre-regulation features of service, that airline is beaten down time and time again by competitors who offer cheaper fares.

American Airlines spent over 100 million dollars retrofitting seat pitch and promoting their "More Room in Coach" strategy. They failed miserably in their attempt to attract more passengers. So they quietly spent millions more reducing their seat pitch to previous size. That's one of a number of examples where consumers rejected what you and sethstorm refer to as "quality of service".

 
At 8/09/2010 8:42 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

juandos,

One more point: the pre-deregulation experience of flying was definitely not what the market desired. If you remember, airlines were prohibited from offerring the lower fares on interstate routes - fares which consumers undobubtedly preferred. Unable to differentiate on price, airlines attempted to provide more value by serving meals and providing free services. The pre-deregulation airline environment was typical government distortion of free markets, and exactly what we should reject with fervor.

It took a couple of decades, but the airlines figured out what passengers really wanted. Low fares, frequent departures, and less fluff proved to be exactly what was needed. A few giant consumers such as yourself will not be equally served by the market-driven industry we have today. As we all know - except perhaps Walt G - life cannot always be fair, not can fairness be legislated.

For what it's worth, I have always wished I were taller, as you are. I love playing basketball, but generally find myself height-disadvantaged.

 
At 8/09/2010 9:45 AM, Blogger juandos said...

"It took a couple of decades, but the airlines figured out what passengers really wanted. Low fares, frequent departures, and less fluff proved to be exactly what was needed"...

Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner!

Exactly sir!

Your observations are pretty much spot on from where I sit...

Its interesting to note about S.W. Airlines...

If one is at one of the major SW Air hubs, that 'frequency of departure' is quite noticiable...

Three years ago I was at Love Field and for some reason (computer booking glitch?) there were a lot more passengers than seats for SW Air to Midway...

What does SW Air do? Roll out another aircraft replete with crew and fill it up, and then one more until all passengers were accomodated...

That would've never happen during the time airlines were regulated...

 
At 8/09/2010 10:36 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

"Three years ago I was at Love Field and for some reason (computer booking glitch?) there were a lot more passengers than seats"

I think that all airlines overbook their high demand flights. They know from experience that a number of passengers will be no-shows. So they use statistical formulas to determine the overbooking level which will enable the planes to fly full or nearly full. Of course, on occasion the passengers surprise us and all show up.

As I understand it, American Airlines pays a significant amount of money to Sabre for the highly sophisticated computer software which maximizes revenue will minimizing oversells.

 
At 8/09/2010 11:00 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

In contrast to the picture painted by sethstorm, please note that airlines have improved some aspects of the service they offer to passengers. Booking flights on company websites has never been easier than it is today. Airlines are rolling out wi-fi service at a small cost for those passengers who wish to use it. International airlines offer private sleeper seats on many trans-oceanic flights. Regional jets have replaced loud and slow prop planes and cut by a third the time for many short haul flights. The passenger airline industry continues to discover which features are important to passengers and which are not.

 
At 8/09/2010 11:06 AM, Blogger morganovich said...

seth-

so pay up and fly first class.

buy the seat next to you and stretch out.

there are options for those who find comfort more important than price you know...

better still, get a netjets account.

airlines are providing what passengers demand.

frankly, the biggest issue with air travel is the freaking security. it's really nice to get out of the US where airports are still user friendly.

fwiw, i want to give a hearty recommendation to austrian airlines. i flew them from sofia to amsterdam (plane change in vienna) and they were astoundingly good. each 90 min flight had a tasty, hot meal served and everything ran like clockwork.

 
At 8/09/2010 10:23 PM, Blogger juandos said...

Hey Jet Beagle...

"I think that all airlines overbook their high demand flights"...

No this wasn't your typical overbooking...

Typical overbooking usually means that the agent might have anywhere from a handful of paying passengers to maybe two or even three dozen more passengers than seats...

In that particular case the overbooking involved over two hundred people...

The supposedly sophisticated Sabre system was sophisticated ten or fifteen years ago...

Its in serious need of a huge overhaul... The DBIII portion is way past its shelf life...

 
At 8/09/2010 10:23 PM, Blogger juandos said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8/10/2010 8:49 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

juandos: "The supposedly sophisticated Sabre system was sophisticated ten or fifteen years ago..."

I wasn't referring to the Sabre reservation system, but rather to the yield management system Sabre developed for American Airlines. That yield management software may or may not still be sophisticated, but I'm pretty sure American still pays a lot for it.

 
At 8/11/2010 6:39 PM, Blogger sethstorm said...


How can a person in your position afford to fly at any price? Does your off the books job require you to fly? What's your address? I'm calling the IRS.


I've flown on vacations when I had proper employment. MD-80's & Canadair/Bombardier regionals are quite uncomfortable for room. Domestic first doesn't help much. The TSA isn't that bad of a hassle, or I've managed to follow their instructions and pack accordingly.

How about a willing employer that isn't trying to be cheap first? Horse in front, cart behind.

I'd not mind if it was possible to get an employer to sponsor a background check for a security clearance - that's about all there is around here. They don't come cheap, and you can't do them yourself if you had the cash.


I thought for sure Sethstorm would advocate mandatory first class upgrades for anyone who demands it.

No, I look for them. When they were available, I made it a point to get them. On one flight from LAS-DFW, it made the following layover bearable. I don't demand them.

As for quality, don't complain about those seats if you're so willing to defend their crampedness and lack of service.

 

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