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Airline Travel as GA's Savior
Wednesday, 11 September 2013 12:56

Boeing 787A staple of the aviation magazine business used to be stories about how a general aviation airplane could be used to fly faster and cheaper than the airlines. The evergreen headline was, “We Beat the Airlines.” Right. You don’t see those stories much anymore and I needn’t explain why.

But could they come back? Could those heady days of yesteryear, where a 10-gallon-an-hour Mooney could occasionally outdo a Boeing or an Embraer on certain routes return? Not a chance, but permit a few pixels of delusional fantasizing. If the trend of owners deserting their airplanes for cheap airline tickets suddenly slows and reverses itself, it won’t be because fuel got cheaper or airplanes became more affordable. It will be because the airlines finally drive enough of their customers bat crazy that they’ll pay about anything to avoid that Delta flight between Atlanta and Dallas.

My rule of thumb used to be thirds. If I could do the trip on the airline for a third of the cost in the GA airplane, I could justify it by making a few stops along the way or departing and arriving on my own schedule. I never considered the airline torture factor because there was no torture factor. But lately, thanks to unbundled pricing, higher load factors, seat pitch that challenges the limits of human tolerance and diminishing route choices, all there is the torture. The typical airline trip—and I take a lot of them—has become an exercise in what the hell are they going to do to me next?

I was in Texas two weeks ago and discovered that American Airlines—which already has about 15 boarding classes--has now invented another one which, like all the others, is intended to squeeze money out of us poor bastards who are engaged in the warfare of modern travel: the endless struggle for a tiny slice of space in the overhead compartments.

I forget what they called it, but anyone who has no carry-on bags boards ahead of what is usually Zone 1, Zone 1 now being allowed onto the airplane about 30 seconds before the cabin door shuts. It’s pretty clever, really. They want to nick you for the $25 for the baggage fee and they’re willing to punish you to get it. But as I was running the math in my head, I figured that these people don’t have much baggage anyway, so they’re less likely to hog the overhead, displacing my modest roll aboard to the baggage bay. Since I don’t care when I get on as long as there’s room for the bag, I didn’t take the bait. This time. (It’s not a question of money, but security. My bag is loaded with small but expensive video gear.)

Time reports this week that all of this is about to get worse. Maybe much worse. The airlines are rapidly shaving capacity and dumping routes, with the predictable impact on fares. As I’ve said before, that’s fine with me. Flying seats around at below cost, long a habit of U.S. carriers, got us to where we are today. The larger market trend might be toward the extremes: full service luxury seats at $3500 from New York to Los Angeles at one end of the spectrum, $400 for a no-frills bench on the same route where water costs $5 and they charge you to use the lav. (Don’t laugh; could happen.) It also means paying extra for an aisle seat, more for a window seat, space in the overhead and to carry on anything that won’t fit in your pocket. And maybe not even that.

This allows the airline to offer, in Delta’s words, “a customized and differentiated experience.” That’s MBAspeak for we’re going to keep torturing you until you pay as much as we can get out of you.

New aircraft will probably makes things worse yet. Boeing is configuring the 787 with eight or nine abreast, meaning more middle seats and fewer aisles and windows. Some airlines are even considering making the center seats narrower, just to pressure passengers yet more to cough up money for an upgrade that really should be just a civilized seat. But this is what you get when an unregulated market buys purely on price, not value.

So in my fantasy world, airline travel becomes so unpleasant for enough people that a couple of things might happen. One is that organized, affordable on-demand charter gains a toe-hold. Remember DayJet and Eclipse? Maybe the timing was just wrong. Maybe that market was on the verge of gelling but only needed the push of truly intolerable airline service to become a reality. Also, recall that a couple of operations tried regional taxis with piston aircraft, including Cirrus and Diamond models.

The other thing is that damn the cost, owners get back into their GA airplanes for at least some of their travel. Although I don’t see the economics changing much, if not worsening, at least you could get on the airplane when you could board when you please and enjoy a seat with a good view, leg room and rudder pedals. What a concept.


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