How Low Can Airlines Go?

My traditionally cheery holiday social media feeds, usually populated by adorable children viciously ripping open presents like tiny animals, were littered instead this week with images of thwarted passengers in never-ending airport lines and real-time updates on the cascading meltdown of Southwest Airlines, which canceled 57 percent of its flights on Thursday alone, leaving passengers stranded all over the country. My family and I missed this chaos because we left Brooklyn for rural Alabama on Dec. 19 via Delta Air Lines, and I am mostly just grateful that we didn’t go to Omaha, as we do every other year to visit my husband’s family, via Southwest. For many Americans, air travel is the only feasible option to see relatives for the holidays or to take long trips for urgent reasons, like medical treatments and family emergencies, and when it’s not cost-prohibitive, it’s often simply miserable.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans live within an hour’s drive of at least some of their extended family members, but my husband and I are in the minority who live very, very far from our families. This year, a month before we planned to travel, I paid $2,544 for three plane tickets and two bags to Montgomery, which has the airport closest to my hometown, Wetumpka.

This means it is easier and cheaper for me to get to London from Brooklyn ($344 per round-trip ticket from Kennedy Airport when I last searched) than to where my parents live, and this is true every year. Now, tickets to Alabama are never cheap, but I paid about $1,000 more this time — a total amount that’s beyond what I’ve ever paid for a month’s rent in one of the most expensive cities in the country. (The Consumer Price Index for airline tickets overall is up 25 percent this year.) Airlines also experienced major staffing shortages because they couldn’t rehire people they let go during the Covid pandemic fast enough to keep up with demand.

The comfort level of airline economy class seems, well, ever less comfortable as airlines choose to squeeze efficiencies out of their businesses, the cost of which partly falls on the customer. The pitch length (the distance between your seat and the same point on the seat in front of you) has decreased from a maximum of 35 inches in the 1980s to sometimes as little as 28 inches now. I’m 5-foot-1, rounding up, and weigh 120 pounds, give or take, and the only person in my family who doesn’t feel cramped in economy is our 40-pound 7-year-old, who is roughly the size of a carry-on bag that would actually fit in the overhead space. (To his disappointment, we have not tried this. He said it would be “cozy” in there.)

Some airlines are worse than others, but these are industrywide afflictions and are dictated by airline executives who know families like mine have little choice but to pay through the nose and suck it up. Real pain is borne by fliers and staff members, especially desk workers and airline attendants, who are expected to be wait staff, safety monitors, therapists and often law enforcement.

Incidents of assault and harassment of airline attendants went up during the pandemic, when airline personnel had to enforce masking mandates and the worst people you know decided to try air travel, seemingly for the first time. No one really gets paid enough to do that, much less deal with abusive fliers who often take it out on frontline airline personnel because when people call the airline, they get 20 minutes of automated prompts and recordings and cannot get a human on the phone, sometimes for hours. I am generally fine with high-stress situations, but I have cried more on the phone with airline customer service reps than I have during multiple viewings of “Terms of Endearment,” and I feel very strongly that the ratio should run the other way.

A family waits to get on a flight at the Denver International Airport on Dec. 27. Disruptions caused Southwest Airlines to alter about 60 percent of its flights.Credit…Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

Airline executives know this, though. Those systems are hard to navigate for a reason, and eventually a lot of people just give up or take it out on the desk attendants. They learn to tolerate how bad the experience is, because what are the alternatives? “Why can’t you just drive?” you might ask — if you have a car and are accustomed only to driving reasonable distances to see your family.

The simple answer is that many of us lack a car, don’t get enough time off for the drive or have other constraints that prohibit driving extremely long distances for a few days’ visit. Driving is also not always the less expensive option. In our case, we’d have to drive a little over 1,000 miles, for over 16 hours. The cost of gas and car rental would be just under $900, assuming we return the car immediately at the destination and get a new rental for the drive back instead of keeping it the whole time (an additional $1,000), plus hotels coming and going because a 16-hour nonstop drive is not compatible with custody of a 7-year-old.

Now we’re, conservatively, at a $1,600 cost to drive, which is a couple hundred more than the $1,400 we’d pay for plane tickets normally. The 7-year-old is prone to carsickness, and it’s hard to quantify the specific misery of being in a car with a periodically nauseated child for 16 hours, especially when you’re mostly on the interstate and it’s not a fun take-your-time scenic trip during which you can stop somewhere off the beaten path and take a selfie in front of the world’s largest ball of twine. You may not pay for these things literally, but you pay in sheer exhaustion and lost time. So instead I chose to pay through the nose for plane tickets and suck it up because it would be eight hours to reach our destination instead of 48, the 7-year-old wouldn’t vomit on anything and at least I could have a bloody mary on the plane as a salve for my frayed nerves, which I can’t do while driving on Interstate 85.

A lot of people have it far worse than we do on this front: more difficult itineraries, more kids, more constraints, less money to pay through the nose. Driving isn’t even a possibility for some people dealing with disabilities, lack of access to a car or other things that simply rule it out. And per our trip to Alabama, it’s not always less expensive. The first time I got on a plane was during my sophomore year of college, and the trip was precipitated by the fact that the 11-hour drive from Wetumpka to Durham, N.C., was going to be pricier to drive than to fly. I was a cash-strapped financial aid student, so I sucked it up.

In a sense, the benefits of airline deregulation have been undermined by its downsides. Low-cost carriers that made flying feasible for middle-class consumers emerged after Congress deregulated the industry in 1978. The lower ticket prices were offset by expanded markets but also allowed airlines to put in place new policies that eliminated amenities, and customers became accustomed to expecting less from air travel. But how low can consumer expectations go, and what does this mean if air travel becomes cost-prohibitive again?

We leave on Friday to go back to New York, and that means a flight with a connection and a long layover at a weird time, which saved me about $400 a ticket. As long as we can and as long as the 7-year-old has grandparents he needs to see, we will continue to do this every year — but not everyone will, or can, if airline service keeps degenerating while fluctuating in price. It’s simply not sustainable for a lot of nonbusiness customers, in terms of both experience and cost. The result is that air travel may become the exclusive domain of first-class passengers and business customers. When driving is out of the question, the alternative will be far inferior, if cheaper and less miserable: FaceTime.

Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers), a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and the founding editor of Gawker.

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