U.S. Markets closed

The airline industry has never been better for customers

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
United Airlines has been in the spotlight this week due to its treatment of a passenger dragged off of a flight.

Welcome to Airline Hate Week! Wait, isn’t that every week?

On Sunday, United Airlines (UAL) was sucked into a jet engine of social-media rage after a flight crew summoned Chicago airport police to remove a passenger from a regional flight to make room for crew members needed to staff a flight the next day. The 69-year-old man was eventually dragged off the aircraft, leaving him bleeding and dazed.

Last week, Delta Air Lines (DAL) canceled thousands of flights for days in a row, thanks toa system meltdown following a bout of thunderstorms around its Atlanta hub. That left passengers sleeping in airports and a deceased man’s body stuck in a cargo hold for two days.

American Airlines (AAL) hasn’t done too badly — but the month is still young. And if I were Southwest (LUV), JetBlue (JBLU) or Alaska (ALK), I wouldn’t get too cocky either.

While most of the venom on Twitter has been aimed at United, the general tenor of this airline angst has been that commercial air travel has descended to a level that barely beats bouncing across town on a crowded bus.

Still, at the risk of having readers want to stuff me into an overhead cabin bin: The facts simply don’t support that tale of woe.

Look at the numbers

The most common defense of the airline industry is its record of safety: Injuries and deaths have been declining for decades — the last fatal accident involving a U.S. carrier happened eight years ago. Meanwhile, the toll on U.S. highways can fairly be described as “American carnage.”

Safety is good! I prefer modes of travel more likely to deliver me intact. But statistics collected by the Department of Transportation show improvements in less eventful areas.

Airlines mishandle fewer bags — from 5.18 per thousand passengers in 1995 to 3.24 in 2015, the most recent year with data available. They bump fewer people from overbooked flights: The percent denied boarding has dropped from .18% in 1995 to .09% in 2015.

On-time arrivals could be better, though, having budged only from 78.6% in 1995 to 79.4% in 2015.

Flying is actually a lot better for passengers than it’s ever been. (Photo: AP)

Adjusted for inflation, domestic airfares have fallen from an average of $472.68 in 1995 to $352.15 in 2016. The checked-bag fees nobody likes ate up some of that difference, but you can buy out of them with a $90 per year credit card that should recoup its value with four flights a year.

And fewer customers complain to the Feds (although you can’t rule out some offended travelers giving up hope). This January, the latest month with DoT data, passengers filed 1,003 complaints versus 1,259 a year ago, 1,480 in January 2015 and 1,713 in January 2014.

Many details have gotten better too

Let’s look at the actual stuff of travel too.

Twenty years ago, inflight entertainment consisted of the airline’s magazine, the view outside, and maybe video on blurry overhead screens. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a cell phone then, since planes offered no way to charge that or other devices.

Now, most airlines offer, often for free, either seat-back video or streaming media to play on a phone or a tablet, each of which you can often recharge from a nearby outlet. (Although, if you’re flying an American narrow-body jet that once belonged to US Airways, that might not be the case.) And the WiFi has gotten faster lately.

The major airlines have also brought back many amenities clawed back during their post-9/11 bouts with bankruptcy. AA, Delta and United all offer snacks in coach on domestic flights and once again serve free beer and wine on international flights. American and Delta also now offer free meals in coach on their longest domestic flights.

Many airlines have brought back free drinks on domestic flights and free alcoholic beverages on international flights.

Expect United to do likewise as it digs its way out of early responses to its latest debacle. After being criticized for offering an apology that was labeled tone deaf, United issued an unreserved apology from CEO Oscar Munoz on Tuesday that pledged changes to how the airline deals with having more passengers than seats.

People love to complain about the airport experience, but that — security screenings aside — has seen real progress too. New terminals are nice (I appreciate not having to depart Washington National Airport from a converted hangar as I did 20 years ago), while ride-hailing services and new rail links (for instance, in Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Seattle, San Francisco) cut the cost of getting there.

Air-travel nostalgia is for museums

Yes, the airline industry’s movement hasn’t all been forward.

The gap between seats has shrunk a little since 2000, although AA and Delta have joined United in offering extra-legroom seating. Seat width has also diminished as airlines both domestic and foreign have started cramming 10-abreast seating into Boeing (BA) 777 widebodies.

And if you’re a frequent flyer, attaining elite status has gotten harder thanks to spending requirements imposed by the big three. Its rewards are scarcer as they hand out fewer upgrades and charge more miles for award travel.

(I might as well disclose that I have status on United and, thanks to a temporary promotion, American. Aside from escaping checked-bag fees and getting free extra-legroom seating, none of the things I’ve mentioned require that privileged position.)

The airlines also have their own history of testing customer tolerance — remember when US Airways tried charging for soda? And when somebody with a phone catches an airline employee behaving badly, it’s easy to see the incident they share on social media as proof of our worst worries.

But the idea that we’re worse off in the air than we were 10 or 20 years ago doesn’t hold up. Neither does the notion, as some have voiced lately, that President Carter’s 1978 deregulation of the airline industry was a mistake and we’d be better off having the government literally pick winners and losers among airlines and decide how much we pay them.

So while I may miss Pan Am and regret missing my chance to zip from Washington to London or Paris in three hours and change on the Concorde, I don’t want to relive 20th-century air travel. Neither should you.

More from Rob:

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.