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Note to self: never fly American Airlines ever again

May 21, 2008 • Karen

American Airlines, like basically all airlines right now, has issues. As a result, they think that, only a few weeks or months since a wave of airlines started charging people for their *second* checked bag (GRAH ANGER GRAH), charging people to check any bags at all is acceptable. So far, this news along with other AA cuts has sent the airline's stock down 24%. I hope it plummets further, before other airlines think this is actually a good idea and copycat it. Is it at all possible for every passenger on a flight to fit a carryon suitcase into the overhead compartment? No! Except for short-term business travelers and the like, you may as well just add the $15 onto every AA ticket price.

It seems like airlines have been doing their gosh-darned best over the last year or so to make flying as unpleasant an experience as possible. A customer satisfaction survey just released found that we are the most dissatisfied with air travel since 2001. Randomly canceling tons of flights, providing crappy service, and raising fares probably all have something to do with this.

Don't get me wrong--I am more than willing to put the blame for this predicament on the shoulders of decisionmakers at the top airlines. They've made plenty of lousy decisions and customer-hating policies. But there are definitely factors more or less out of the airlines' control. The TSA being the #1 most hated government agency, for one (though the airlines are capable of lobbying for less idiotic security policies--they apparently just don't). Oil prices are another. (Do hybrid planes exist? Can we buy some?)

Which got me thinking: what if air travel just isn't worth being in business anymore? As American Airlines chairman and CEO Gerard Arpey mentioned in the article:

The airline industry as it is constituted today was not built to withstand oil prices at $125 a barrel, and certainly not when record fuel expenses are coupled with a weak U.S. economy.

Most firms that are incapable of turning a profit in the mass market either go away, or become high-end niche businesses. What if that happened to air travel? Flying, after all, is one of the most wasteful-per-capita means of transportation out there--you burn more gas per person than you would roadtripping all that distance. With oil prices as they are, eco-friendliness correlates with profits--or vice-versa. The rich and business travelers who need to get places fast would still have airlines to serve them. But how would the rest of us get around this big-ass country of ours?

There's the problem. What alternatives does the middle class have to air travel for long-distance mass transit? Amtrak goes almost nowhere, except maybe on the East Coast. While the overall Amtrak experience has been quite enjoyable in my experience, it's expensive as heck and you run the risk of MAJOR delays if the schedule gets messed up and you have to compete with commodity trains for rail space. Greyhound buses exist, but they're not only uncomfortable, they're also gas-dependent and in many cases fares cost the same or more than comparable flights. Chinatown buses are useful and cheap as heck, but they also are pretty much limited to East Coast departures and destinations.

In short: we don't really have an alternative. As much as we loathe them, we need the airlines to stay afloat. For now. Where's my goddamn high-speed transcontinental maglev train?