Airline passengers voting with their feet

More than six years after 9/11, American consumers have finally lost patience with the airline industry. Air travel dropped sharply over the last twelve months, with 41 million fewer trips. Surveys show that passengers have become fed up with hassles at the airports and with higher costs and poor service:

Nearly half of American air travelers would fly more if it were easier, and more than one-fourth said they skipped at least one air trip in the past 12 months because of the hassles involved, according to an industry survey.The Travel Industry Association, which commissioned the survey released Thursday, estimated that the 41 million forgone trips cost the travel industry $18.1 billion — including $9.4 billion to airlines, $5.6 billion to hotels and $3.1 billion — and it cost federal, state and local authorities $4.2 billion in taxes in the past 12 months.When 28 percent of air travelers avoided an average of 1.3 trips each, that resulted in 29 million leisure trips and 12 million business trips not being taken, the researchers estimated.

The survey results did not address whether travelers chose alternate transportation to pursue any of the journeys they didn’t take by plane. The association estimated overall travel industry revenue at $740 billion. …

In all, 44 percent of the 1,003 air travelers surveyed by phone from May 6 to May 13 said they would take more air trips each year if airport hassles could be reduced or eliminated. The survey, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. and The Winston Group, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

People who flew more than five times in the past 12 months were more likely to describe air travel as frustrating, at 52 percent, compared with 33 percent of infrequent travelers, defined as people who flew one or two round trips in 12 months, according to the survey. More than half of respondents said either efficiency or reliability is getting worse, 60 percent said the system is deteriorating, and 56 percent said flying is the “bad” or “worst” part of travel — though 62 percent said air travel security is improving.

I’m not a fan of flying, but that comes from an intense dislike of the sensation, not of the service or the security measures. Airport security has intensified, and that has created hassles, but the alternatives wouldn’t make me more likely to get on a plane, either. If people get to the airport earlier, delays at the security checkpoints cause much less stress. I suspect that “hassles” occur when people try to cut their time too closely and start getting agitated about missing their flight.

However, airlines don’t help much, either. American Airlines just announced a plan to charge for checked baggage, which will only push people to add more carry-on baggage instead, which creates delays in boarding and disembarking. Meal service has disappeared, and now Northwest charges $5 and up for “snack boxes”, although no one has started charging for soft drinks — yet. Seats are jammed together, making the hours-long ride an uncomfortable experience for anyone of normal size.

The more unpleasant flying becomes, the less people will do it. The hassles and the discomfort become added costs to an already-expensive mode of transportation, and as costs add up, demand will drop. If the airline industry wants to get more people onto the airplanes, they should consider ways to reduce these secondary costs.