Those of us who have returned to frequent air travel appreciate just how unpleasant the process has become. Perhaps this simply reflects an overly sentimental view of what the experience was like pre-pandemic, but surely it has become much worse since. Outrageously expensive tickets, long lines at security (even premium lanes like Clear), no room in airline lounges, overbooked flights, record numbers of cancelations and delays, hour-long phone hold times, and diminished rewards for airline loyalty programs, have all come to characterize the post-lockdowns travel experience. Yuck!
Let’s start with ticket prices. According to CPI data, average U.S. domestic airfares increased by 57 percent in just six months through May of 2022. While down from summer 2022 peaks, prices remain 36 percent above December 2021 levels. Inflation in the form of rapidly rising fuel and labor costs is certainly a factor, but the wave of airline consolidation over the past decade is also likely a culprit.
U.S. passenger air traffic volume has returned to near 2019 levels. Flights are regularly sold out. According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. carriers’ domestic passenger load factor (the ratio of actual passengers to available seats) hit 90.0 percent last June, the highest level on record, and this summer’s volume is expected to repeat.
As a result, Airline profitability has skyrocketed. According to an recent forecast from the International Air Transport Association, airline industry operating profits are expected to reach $22.3 billion in 2023, well more than double 2022 levels ($10 billion). So why is the customer experience so bad?
A recent report from the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection shows that there was an all-time record numbers of cancelations (180,000) and delays in 2022. Certain airlines had near-catastrophic operational and reputational failures, with PR crises that only barely avoided becoming terminal nose dives for the carriers.
The airlines were clearly unprepared for the onslaught of business and leisure travelers who had enough of Zoom meetings and staycations. The carriers’ decisions to furlough rather than lay off employees in 2020 didn’t take into account the large number of pilots, air and ground crew personnel, and customer agents who would in the meantime find better things to—or to simply do nothing—and never returned. This resulted in not just a labor shortfall but a troublesome skills gap.
During the summer of 2022, it was nearly impossible to get an agent on the phone. Have a real-time need for a flight change because the connecting flight was delayed? Good luck reaching anyone from the airline to help before the next flight closes. This situation has eased somewhat, but for the wrong reasons.
In the past few months, at least two of the major airlines have moved their problem-solving groups outside the reach of customers. Try to get a refund or compensation for a canceled flight or lost luggage, and the agent on the line can no longer help you. The issue must go to “customer care,” now a different department. The name is somewhat misleading, since the customer is not allowed to speak with anyone in customer care. Instead, the customer goes to a website, submits a form, and hopes for the best. The website kindly notes that it may take customer care up to thirty days to respond due to the high volume of inquiries. The airlines apparently fail to appreciate the irony here (“Welcome to customer care. Customers not allowed”).
Lounges have become unbearably crowded. Long lines form outside, waiting based on a one-in one-out policy. The airlines are cutting loyalty program benefits across the board and raising tier requirements after years of what were probably overly generous status retention gratuities.
But the real frustration for many travelers is the security screening process. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wait times are often interminable, so much so that they’ve stopped publicly providing their own data on the subject in a way that could hold them accountable.
The TSA’s proposed budget for FY24 is $10.4 billion. This is an increase of nearly 40 percent ($2.7 billion) from FY19’s pre-pandemic level. Of this grand amount, “$1.4 billion [is] to fully support the TSA employee pay initiatives started in FY23,” which provided for an average 30% increase in base pay for TSA officers. The TSA’s stated rationale for the compensation increase is because other federal agencies are doing it.
The TSA is now one of the nation’s largest employers, with over 65,000 officers and staff. The image of numerous TSA officers milling around doing apparently little while exasperated customers queue in never-ending snake-like lines has become a meme and a byword of disdain. The TSA seems to know it is a leading cause of flier misery, so the administration is proposing spending $3.7 billion in FY24 to “enhance Customer Experience Strategic Initiatives.” It is hard to imagine how this will be money well spent.
We are now fully desensitized to how outrageously inefficient and likely ineffective this process has become. After nearly a quarter of a century of cattle-herding, we have come to accept that having our shoes removed and billfolds inspected is somehow not just normal but necessary for our civilization. Have a legitimate business need (or simply personal preference) for carrying a large amount of cash? Plan to spend some extra time explaining yourself in private and perhaps having an asterisk attached to your name.
We have fallen for the fantasy that pouring out a water bottle or having a tube of lip balm rerun (by itself) through the scanner is imperative to public safety. It’s like we’re living in a French absurdist film in which no one notices or finds it unusual that that everyone is wearing a fried egg on their head.
It does not have to be this way. There are cheaper, more practical, and better solutions that would accomplish the ostensible public safety objective behind a bureaucracy that has become a Frankenstein-like monster of similar intelligence. An alternative solution should include a plan and funding (taken from TSA) to re-position these tens of thousands of generally decent and occasionally kind officers into roles that are productive and add value to society. Like helping to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, for one. Rather than have them standing around and occasionally chastising some poor soul over a trivial infraction, we’d all be better off if they stood around and occasionally helped to build something.
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