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How Cheap Can Flying Get?

Carol Sottili

It's often occurred to me that it's cheaper to fly now than it was 30 years ago. I remember paying $99 each way on People Express to fly from LA to NY in the late 1970s, about the same price you'll get with a good sale today. My mother swears that her flight to Germany cost more in 1953 than it did last year. Airfare expert Terry Trippler recently confirmed these suspicions by comparing airfares in 1982 to airfares today for 135 domestic city pairs (for 1982, he used published fares from the Official Airlines Guide).

Trippler started with five key cities, including Washington's Reagan National and Dulles, and then randomly chose destinations from Atlanta to Tampa. For Washington, he looked at nonstop flights to Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nashville and Seattle.

In 1982, a round-trip flight to Atlanta would have cost $176 (about $375 in today's dollars using the Consumer Price Index, which estimates that you'd need $2.13 today to buy what $1 could buy in 1982); in Trippler's current check, the flight was priced at $178. Here are the rest of the results:
Denver: $257 ($547 considering CPI) in 1982, $158 today.
Minneapolis/St. Paul: $249 ($530) in 1982, $188 today.
Nashville: $170 ($362) in 1982, $212 today.
Seattle: $298 ($634) in 1982, $198 today.

To punctuate Trippler's conclusions, I received another e-mail yesterday from the flak at Farecast.com about "record low fares" from BWI, including a $130 round-trip fare to LAX (don't try to find it now -- it's gone).

So is it any wonder that the airlines aren't making money? For example, according to the Air Transport Association, U.S. airlines used 10.4 billion gallons of jet fuel in 1982, and it cost them $10.3 billion. In 2006, the airlines used 19.6 billion gallons of jet fuel and it cost them $38.5 billion. I'm not a math wizard, but I don't think you have to be one to see that something's gotta give.

Everyone complains about how awful air travel has become. Would it be a better experience if the airlines charged more and made money?

By Carol Sottili |  April 11, 2007; 10:50 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Carol Sottili , Deals
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It might be cheaper in the big cities but I don't think it's gotten cheaper from smaller metropolitan areas. We don't have the variety of airlines to choose from and our only direct flights go to a hub. Sales happen rarely since there is little competition.

Sure, I could drive 3.5 hours to get to my nearest hub airport and enjoy the cheaper fares. However, when you add in gas, parking and a possible hotel stay, it isn't worth it.

I dream of a day when I could fly anywhere for less than $350.

Posted by: Mary J | April 11, 2007 11:09 AM

Okay, now let's look at the quality of service we received for our money 20 years ago versus what we get today.

Meals, unlimited soft drinks, blankets, pillows, all provided free of charge. We weren't shoehorned into the plane to maximize profitability. We left and arrived on time. We booked our flights with live individuals. We didn't stand in line for an hour (or more) to check our bags. We didn't stand around the baggage carousel for an hour (or more) after a flight do get our bags, only to find them damaged.

Shall I continue? Perhaps we are too spoiled today with these lower fares. Most folks couldn't afford to fly 20 years ago. Too many people flying plus too many airlines makes for too many problems. Thin out both and it might get better.

Posted by: John | April 11, 2007 12:38 PM

The cases being cited occured before airline deregulation, when airlines were not allowed to compete on price, so they competed on service.
When the airlines were deregulated, they were allowed to compete on price, and the reason we have low prices today is because consumers, by and large, have signalled to the market that they prefer low ticket prices over having certain amenities in flight.

In fact, there still is the competition on quality. It is called first class. If you long for the good old days of flying, you can pony up for first class, whose prices are more of a proxy for airline prices "back in the day." If enough people show a preference for first class over coach service, to the point where first class is consistently selling out while coach is not, then it would be in the best interests of the airlines to alter their planes to provide more first class seats, so that they can collect the additional revenues. Since it is usually coach being oversold, consumers as a whole are signalling that while first class treatment is nice, it is not worth the extra cost of a standard seat.
I will gladly take the lower ticket prices, which serves my purpose of simply wanting to get from point A to B as quickly and as safely as possible.

Posted by: supply and demand | April 11, 2007 1:15 PM

To supply and demand: You may get a bigger seat and better drinks in first class, but when flights are delayed or cancelled while you are at the gate, you have to wait like everyone else. You have to wait for your luggage, too, and it doesn't get special handling.

Posted by: Me | April 11, 2007 1:33 PM

Paying for first class, you get first dibs on rescheduling. Also, you do get special lines for check in. I will grant you the argument that you do wait for your luggage with the rest of us schlubs. Perhaps you should suggest to airlines with first class that they make another perk for first class which is "first off" priviledge for luggage. You'd still have to wait at the carosel, but it would get on the belt first, so you could be out first.
Or there is another option, which is shipping your luggage ahead of yourself. Express overnight your luggage from your house using at home pick up, and it can be waiting for you at your hotel. No lugging it into your car, no weighing issues, and no waiting. Again, it is a premium service at a premium cost.
Perhaps the best solution is an a-la-carte menu of options, with basic flight being cheap, and then you can add on services (such as premium luggage handling, or even an in-flight massage...if the price is right)

Posted by: supply and demand | April 11, 2007 1:54 PM

when they stop stealing the contents of your suitcase (nothing like getting your luggage back--empty), making you sit on the tarmac for hours (missing connections and appointments), and so on it might be worth it to ride 1st class.
As far as the coach experiance goes, I can handle it. I do remember in-flight meals. I remember they were nasty and if you paid for a special meal, they never seemed to have it. Forcing you to do without lots of times. I'd rather get a sack lunch from one of the concourse restaurants.
I also remember many of the other amenities like blankets, pillows, etc. I remember they were too tiny to be useful. I'd rather dress to be comfortable.
And coach, well, most of it's problems seem to stem from other coach passengers rather than the airline. Are they really any better in first-class?

Posted by: preggers | April 11, 2007 1:58 PM

I can not imagine that the luxuries of first class are worth twice as muc (or more) than the tickets for coach.

Posted by: BF | April 11, 2007 2:16 PM

When I read this, I thought that this was a joke. Last December, my husband and I each paid $178.10 for a round trip flight from BWI to Spokane, WA on Southwest. Great, right. Well, we need to go to Spokane again this summer. We checked Southwest...even with the cheapest flights they had (none of which were available), it was well over what we paid in December. Now, for us to go round trip from BWI to Spokane on Southwest, it would cost over $1100! That is ridiculous. Luckily, we found a better deal than that from one of the online deal sites...but it's still costing us $300 more than it did last year.

Answer to this blog's question: It could get a heck of a lot cheaper.

Posted by: Odenton, MD | April 11, 2007 3:58 PM

Yes it could get lots cheaper. Heard on the radio today that somebody is proposing airline seats be set back to back -- ie you knees touch the person in the next row --to squeeze in another row. In Europe, airlines already charge for soft drinks and checked baggage. Some have eliminated a bathroom, too, to add a few more seats. Many companies, although no airlines, charge you to talk to a live customer service representative. And the newest innovation, the A-380, seats 853 passangers and that's before removing bathrooms and turning the seats around. I think we are only halfway in the trend toward lower prices and higher services.

Posted by: Rick | April 11, 2007 6:34 PM

I've said it before, I'll say it again - bring back domestic business class. Let the bargain hunters fly cattle-car, and the big spenders fly in luxury, but add that nice in-between class with a little extra room to work. Make it child-free and I'll pay a premium.

Posted by: Karen | April 12, 2007 3:02 PM

To Odenton, MD:

flying Southwest, you have to understand how they are different from all other airlines. Southwest runs specials weekly, daily, even hourly. you cannot simply log on at any old time and expect to find a cheap fare. for a flight this summer, southwest will not have great deals until next month at the earliest. if you really want cheap fares, sign up for Southwest's "click-n-save" emails, or even better, download "Ding!" to your computer, where you can recieve super-low fares that expire the same day but if you can get one before it goes away are amazing - just Sunday they had $25 one way, for BWI to multiple destinations, as far away as Tampa and St Louis, and $50 for BWI to Houston, LA, Oakland, etc. When they run an internet special, it usually lasts between 3-7 days from the time you are sent the email, and Ding! fares last between 4 an 12 hours from the time they are sent to your desktop. dont assume that because you would have to pay so much for your flight now that a month from now it would be the same. i guarantee if you understood how southwest operates, you and your husband would pay no more than $600 for your tickets, and thats assuming you dont find a ding fare or a good internet sale.

and honestly, why would anyone prefer to pay more for extra amenities? i love flying, but i dont fly just for the sake of flying, i fly to get somewhere. yes there are those who simply fly for the heck of it (see the post's article from last month about United's nonstop Dulles-to-Beijing). But most of us fly to go somewhere, and honestly no matter what you pay the plane is going the same speed, so really it makes sense to pay less and just entertain/feed yourself. i'd much rather pay $5 for a salad or sandwhich in the airport to take on the plane with me than pay an airline an extra $50 to give me some cruddy food i dont even like. honestly, if you cant keep yourself busy for 5 hours on an airplane, you probably shouldnt be allowed out in public unsupervised. this is why i fly Southwest Airlines. I'd much rather have more money to entertain myself at my destination than to go broke being entertained on the way there and be bored the whole vacation. honestly.

Posted by: bolevar2382 | April 19, 2007 2:53 AM

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