Maxing Out Our Airports

Traveling for thanksgiving

Adam Minter predicts Thanksgiving-type travel days year-round in coming years:

[E]ven with billions worth of improvements in the pipeline, the picture for travelers remains bleak. Of the 30 busiest U.S. airports (accounting for 70 percent of total U.S. passenger flow), 13 already feel like the day before Thanksgiving one day a week on average. Three airports — Midway, Las Vegas McCarran, and Orlando International — suffer those levels of congestion twice a week. Worse yet, the capacity improvements that are currently slated won’t help much. Within six years, the study notes, 27 of the 30 busiest airports will be Thanksgiving-busy at least once a week.

That this state of affairs is unnatural should be apparent to anyone who flies outside the U.S. even occasionally. In 2011, the World Economic Forum ranked U.S. aviation infrastructure 32nd in the world — behind Malaysia (an assessment that, in my personal experience, remains accurate). This is both embarrassing and somewhat predictable. Developing countries such as Malaysia strongly subsidize airports and airlines, viewing them as important marketing opportunities and first-impression makers.

Clive Irving hates how airlines jam so many seats into coach:

Looking through photographs from the early days of U.S. airlines, I found a shot of the cabin of the Boeing 247, circa 1934. The 247 was the first airplane really to define the form of a modern airliner, flying faster and higher than any predecessor. The passengers in the photo are enjoying a standard of comfort undreamed of in coach today: only one seat on each side of the aisle, generous leg room, nice wide seat cushions, and seat backs shaped to reflect the curves of the human body. Some of the ladies are wearing furs and hats. Even a 200-pounder could sink contentedly into the space without encroaching on anyone else.

In 1934, those passengers paid $160 for a one-way flight from Newark to San Francisco, in today’s money $2,800. This was at the depths of the Great Depression. In its infancy, air travel was a luxury only the wealthy could afford as they flew nonchalantly over the states where the likes of Ma and Pa Joad were fleeing the Dust Bowl. At the front end of the cabin it remains so. Airplanes have become as segregated by class as the old ocean liners—opulence for the rich and the crush of steerage for the rest of us.

But Amy Cohn contends that the disparity in airline ticket prices benefits everyone:

Suppose that an airline offers a 100-seat flight from Philadelphia to Chicago, and that it costs $40,000 to cover the costs of the airplane, fuel, pilots, flight attendants, landing fees, insurance, and so on. The airline needs to make at least $40,000 in ticket revenues for the flight to be worth flying. If the airline were to offer just one fare for all tickets on that flight, what should that fare be? Selling every seat for $425, for a total of $42,500, would make the flight nominally profitable.

But there may not be 100 people willing to pay $425 for this flight. Maybe there are 100 cash-poor college students who want to fly, but can only afford $300 per ticket. On the other hand, there may be 20 business travelers who want to fly, each willing to pay up to $900. … This is where “fare differentiation” comes in. If they can sell $300 seats to 80 college students and $900 seats to 20 business travelers, then they can sell all 100 seats, earning $42,000 and making the flight worth offering.

How all passengers wins:

While it is definitely to the benefit of college students to have business travelers “subsidize” their fares, the business travelers may be getting the bigger benefitand not just because there are usually a few tickets still available at the last minute (at the highest fare). This fee structure allows airlines to increase the number of flights offered, giving the business traveler more options to choose from.

(Photo: Security lines at Denver International Airport on November 26, 2014. By RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)