Train travel is the Answer to a Broken Airline System
Last year, airlines worldwide made an extra $27.1 billion in "ancillary" fees like the ones for checked bags and upgraded seats, according to a study from analysts at Idea Works Company. That's more than double the amount airlines made from extras in 2009, the first year that extras became part of the public’s travel experience. Of all carriers studied around the world, United made the most total dollars -- over $5 billion -- in ancillary revenue last year. Next came Delta, American and Southwest.
For the study, "ancillary revenue" was defined as "revenue beyond the sale of tickets." That could include charges for priority check-in, assigned seating, and food and beverages offered on the plane. Spirit is the airline whose ancillary revenue made up the most of its total revenue for the year: 38.5%. This came firstly from baggage fees and secondly from a “passenger usage fee,” which is when you're charged for booking your ticket anywhere besides the airport.
Now, along comes Jet Blue that announced last Wednesday, the company will begin charging more for passengers who want to check bags on flights next year, leaving Southwest as the last major airline to hold out on adopting such a pricing plan.
The fees are to be rolled into new fares that increase with the number of bags checked, according to a release from the airline, which said: “Beginning in the first half of 2015, customers will be able to choose between three branded fare bundle options. The first of these will be designed for customers who do not plan to check a bag, while the latter two will offer one and two free checked bags, respectively, along with other attractive benefits, including additional TrueBlue points and increased flexibility.”
Baggage fees are just one of several new initiatives aimed at maintaining the company’s “competitive cost position,” the release said. Other initiatives include a cabin “refresh” for its A320 fleet to begin in 2016, the primary goal of which will be to replace the aircraft’s current seats with slimmer models, thereby increasing the plane’s capacity by about 15 passengers. “Using lighter, more comfortable seats, JetBlue will be able to increase the number of seats on its planes while continuing to offer the most legroom in coach,” the release said.
I fly a lot and keeping up with the extra fees is a chore in itself. Recently, I flew on Virgin America and paid double the fare to sit in “main cabin select.” The airline claims these seats provide extra legroom but I believe it has pulled a bait and switch. The legroom to begin with is quite small so the extra six inches makes it a normal amount of legroom. It’s like a clothing store that advertises 50% off their clothing only to increase the base price by two or three-fold.
I wouldn’t mind paying the extra fees if the service improved as well, but that has not been my experience. What irks me the most is when an airline starts the boarding process one-half hour before departure, even though the aircraft already is on the ground, and expects to board and seat all passengers to have an on-time departure. American Airlines is well known for doing this. Don’t the airlines know that with full planes and lots of on-board baggage (to avoid baggage check fees) that a minimum of 45 minutes is needed to comfortably board all passengers?
I have two suggestions for airlines to up their fees. Perhaps they can hire me as a consultant: (1) reduce the size of the legroom to a total of six inches thereby increasing total seats; this would require passengers to squat in their seats or pay a fee for more leg room and (2) charge passengers who take luggage on board thereby providing an incentive to check bags; in fact, lower the check baggage fees to incentivize checking baggage and expediting the boarding process.
Flying today is not a pleasant experience made more uncomfortable because of the increasing size of average Americans. Most of us have sat in seats where a passenger next to us encroaches on our space making an unpleasant situation even worse. Moreover, these folks never give up the arm rest so you are sitting with arms bent into the seat and away from the arm rest creating an excruciating flight experience.
The flying public today has to contend with fewer choices of flights; more difficulty finding a flight with available seats; generally higher fares and reduced service; extra fees that sometimes add up to 50% or more of the ticket price; limited seating area; and no meals without paying for them. On my Virgin America flight they didn’t even provide free peanuts or pretzels.
Airline travel is the only industry where the experience is contemptible and customers have no recourse other than to drive or take a train. It would be nice if we had a high-speed rail system in the U.S. to compete with air travel, as exists in many other countries. Moreover, we are doing nothing to build a faster system and are uncompetitive with systems in Europe and Asia.
The fastest train line in the United States, Amtrak's Acela line, can travel at 150 mph (241 km/h). This is similar to bullet trains outside the U.S., but most of the trains in these countries travel at the same average speed.
Building a rail system that is efficient, fast, and a comfortable experience should be a national priority. The problem is it requires a lot of advance planning and, in the U.S., we no longer do planning very well and have become expert in kicking the can down the road.
One country that has it right is Japan. The nation has successfully tested its new generation of "L0" trains that use magnetic levitation, or "maglev" technology to achieve record-breaking speeds. The LO trains – the fastest in the world -- are on schedule to be ready for passengers in 2027 on the line connecting Tokyo with Nagoya, a trip of about 218 miles (351 kilometers) that will take just 40 minutes instead of the usual 90 minutes.
Train travel in the U.S. is old and inefficient. We are losing an opportunity to make environmental improvements in the way we travel; lower travel costs; and force airlines to provide a more low cost and comfortable experience or go out of business.
Would you ride on a train that floats on air and travels at speeds of 310 mph (500 km/h)? Japan is betting that its traveling public will.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 26, 2014. Dr. Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Professor Mintz also blogs at: www.ethicssage.com