Transforming Air Lines to Bus Lines

I have been a frequent flyer for almost 30 years on Delta Air Lines.  I’ll soon reach 3,000,000 miles.  I’ve been everywhere with Delta, both as my conveyance to adventure and my safe passage home.  I’ve had countless drinks, lots of ice cream sundaes, and many fascinating conversations and heart-felt laughs, all on Delta, flying first class heading somewhere.

During these 30 years, the airline industry has adapted to the deregulation initiated in 1978 in the Carter Administration.  Competition has greatly intensified, helped in part by seat price optimization that enables one passenger to pay $699 for a seat next to another passenger paying $99.  The result is every seat is full, yet the airlines continue to lose lots of money.

Passengers lose too.  People are tightly packed together, waiting like gerbils for their little bag of pretzels.  There is little legroom – guard your pretzels in case the person in front of you puts their seat back.  Luggage compartments are overflowing.  On-time departures are almost impossible as people wrestle their bulging roll-aboards around each other seeking rapidly diminishing opportunities to dock them.

My recent flights, still occasionally in first class, provide astounding contrasts with my memories of Delta before they optimized the “passenger containment units”.  Now, everything feels like McDonalds, from the throwaway placemat to the plastic utensils.  There are two wines – called red and white – and no champagne.  Grapefruit juice is long gone.  The ice cream sundaes seem farther away than my childhood experiences of the ice cream man.  It is upscale coach – maybe.

I’ve heard people say that this is Delta’s natural reaction to the pressures of Southwest, AirTran, and others.  It may be natural, but it does not seem like a prudent choice.  I used to pay more for Delta flights (in inflation-adjusted dollars), never complained, and Delta made money.  Now, I am paying less – sometimes – and receiving much less value and Delta is losing money.  Sure, I get where I’m going, a little compressed sometimes from the lack of space.  But, I get there.  So, why complain?

I’ve looked for the answers in trains.  I never experienced the opulence of trains in the U.S.  My mother had a glimpse, but even by World War II, the experience was fading.  In contrast, I have experienced first class travel on European and Japanese trains.  I love going to the dining car, having a drink and watching the world whisk by.  I expect to sometime see Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, or someone like them sharing love, adventure, or simply being scared stiff.  So, I am an incurable romantic, which might reasonably call you to question this whole post.

So, what’s happened to air travel?  Certainly, Delta argues that it is trying to do a good job, as are its pilots, flight attendants, and other employees.  However, the world seems to have changed.  Many people want low-price everything.  Laundry soap, potato chips, and airplane flights.  We want the absolute cheapest, minimal frills, and take the bus travel that anyone can provide.  If you can provide a transcontinental flight for $99, how about $89?

For Delta at least, this is clearly the end of greatness.  Delta has decided to compete in the bus business.  As one Delta executive commented to me, they will continue to pull feathers (i.e., eliminate services) until the goose honks – as I am honking now.  Then we will get used to the bus service from Atlanta to Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and accept the bare-bones everything – all for $89, $79, $69, ….  I once had a great relationship with a great airline.  Now, I take the bus.


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