We’re paying more for fewer flights, but we’re better entertained on them. Seatback in-flight entertainment systems with live TV, pioneered by JetBlue in 1999 and Delta Song in 2003, have become the norm on several airlines.
We’re able to get online in the air now, too. The first true in-flight Internet service, Boeing’s Connexion, lost all its U.S. airline support after the 9/11 attacks. But by 2008, Gogo Inflight began to appear on American and Delta planes; now AirTran, Continental, Alaska Airlines, and US Airways offer Gogo Internet, as well.
We’re stuck on the ground for less time, thanks to new rules forbidding long tarmac delays that took effect in 2009. And if we’re bumped, the mandatory compensation also went up in 2009.
That tarmac delay rule has changed how airlines cancel flights, as well. They now typically cancel flights further in advance rather than waiting for the last minute, as they did during the horrible summer of 1999 when thousands of people were trapped in airports and on sweltering planes.
That’s controversial; some airline experts argue it means more flights get cancelled because of weather than there used to be. But I think it’s been a good thing overall, as people aren’t as frequently stuck in the airport or on planes waiting to take off.
We may be safer and better protected, but we aren’t happier. The University of Michigan’s American Consumer Satsifaction Index has been tracking Americans’ opinions of airlines since 1995, and the industry as a whole has held steady in the mid-60s for the past ten years. Looking at individual airlines, the majors take big dips the year after they merge (because mergers are an awful mess) but the only standout is Southwest, whose score of 81 is much higher than other major airlines.
The culprit, I’d say, is the overwhelming sense of dehumanization that’s come over air travel in the past ten years. Maybe the TSA is more efficient than the old security system, but it turns travelers into objects to be virtually and literally strip-searched. On board, planes are more crowded, seats are often smaller, flight attendants crabby, and little amenities have been taken away. And when we add up all the fees, we aren’t paying less for this than we did in the late ’90s, either.
We’ve spent the past ten years in airports staring back at 9/11, figuring out what we could do not to repeat it. How about we spend the next decade figuring out how to balance safety with making flying feel more human again.