Like most Baby Boomers, William J. McGee remembers when flying was fun: when passengers dressed like they were going to church, when in-flight meals were hot and free, when airports were a destination in and of themselves, full of families who traveled to this exciting place just to see the jets take off.
Today, flying has as much appeal as inching through construction on Interstate 93 in a car with a clutch. The security lines, the body scans and the $5 snacks, combined with packed planes and baggage charges, have turned what was once the most pleasurable mode of transportation into the second-worst (trailing only the public school bus). The reasons are many, but at root of them all is that airlines no longer compete over customer service, but price. And for that, we have deregulation to blame, says McGee, a longtime airline employee turned aviation journalist.
When the Airline Deregulation Act ended government control of aeronautics in 1978, the airlines lost their guarantee of profitability, and many plunged into bankruptcy. Between deregulation and 9/11, nine major carriers went bust or were liquidated. Those that remained, the “legacy” airlines and the cheeky new upstarts, were thrown into free-market competition, which widened offerings and lowered average ticket costs, and ultimately, packed more people into smaller spaces on airplanes. In 1978, the average plane flew at 61.5 percent of capacity; by 2010, that sardine-per-upright-seat had climbed to 82.1 percent. It’s not your imagination: Airplanes are considerably more crowded than they once were.
They’re also less safe, McGee contends.
Adrift in the free market, airlines are hopelessly unprofitable. He quotes financier Warren Buffett saying, “I have an 800 number now which I call if I ever get an urge to buy an airline stock.” Southwest is the only airline that consistently turns a profit (it’s also the only airline not to involuntarily shed employees), but even it can only muster a credit rating of BBB minus.
To remain afloat, airlines must make unpopular decisions (baggage charges) and unsafe ones (allowing infants to fly in laps). They also must increasingly outsource labor overseas, not only telephone calls, but maintenance of aircraft, which McGee argues is dangerous, not only for the airlines’ credibility and good will, but for safety. Statistically, you’re as safe now as you were before deregulation, the author acknowledges, but just wait: those runways will one day erode. The airlines are all on a “mad race to the bottom,” he says.
Here, it must be noted that McGee is a journalist like George Stephanopoulos is, which is to say, not without considerable, pre-existing bias. An author’s note at the beginning of the book announces nobly that McGee received no income from airlines or travel suppliers, nor collects or redeems frequent-flier mileage. Further, it says, he did not accept any free flights or goodies of any kind while researching this book. (Emphasis mine.) Not for another 300 pages do we learn that he, in fact, took quite a few freebies during his previous employment as the aviation editor of a travel trade magazine.
Does it matter now that, in 1994, KIWI International Air Lines treated McGee and his son to a private skybox at Madison Square Garden to see the circus? We suppose not, since the airline is defunct, and McGee has crafted a new career as a consumer advocate of sorts. But when McGee bashes Delta and praises Southwest and Jet Blue, it’s hard not to wonder what personal biases he may still nurture.
Attention All Passengers is more for aviation wonks and policy makers than the average traveler. While the author knows the industry, the book would have benefited from a more personal, cohesive narrative; as is, the occasional tidbit from his life and career seem out of place with policy talk heavily weighted with statutes and acronyms.
Still, for frequent fliers, there’s interesting reading in here. Tips on booking a flight (Tuesday afternoon is best, if you’re seeking a cheap fare) and what to wear (no polyester — catches fire too easily); explanations of why, if you book a flight on United, you might find yourself returning home on US Airways; and confirmation that, yes, you really are treated worse by airline employees if you book the cheapest flight available on an Internet auction site. B- — Jennifer Graham