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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

your in-flight movie today is… nothing

They really are trying to take all the fun out of traveling, aren’t they:

US Airways (LCC, Fortune 500) says it will start removing in-flight entertainment systems on domestic flights in November to save about $10 million annually in fuel and other costs….

US Airways says it will test a lighter, seat-back TV system later this year. However, Gee says a new entertainment system is a long way off.

I remember the first time I flew on a plane with seatback TVs: it was Virgin Atlantic, and the year, kiddies, was 1994. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, and I spent pretty much the whole transatlantic flight watching Mr. Bean.

My last flight, the horrific return from Paris in the spring, was on an old plane that didn’t have seatback TVs, just one projection TV for the cabin showing Bollywood musicals (it was Air India), and I thought that was torture: even as a poor, starving writer, not a regular world traveler, I thought that was barbaric. But it looks like someday, I’ll be telling my nonexistent grandchildren about the good old days when Bollywood movies for the whole cabin was a luxury beyond compare.

Looks like I’ll have to revise the definition of civilization downward.

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  • All of this nickle-and-diming on the part of the airline industry can be solved by doing one simple thing:

    Re-regulate the airlines and require higher minimum fares. (OK, that’s two things.)

    Before the 1980s, airline travel was simple: You paid a somewhat high fare, but you got to carry on a bag AND check two bags. You got free peanuts and soft drinks and even a meal if the flight was long enough. The planes weren’t crowded, and everyone had plenty of legroom, even the overweight people.

    Then the industry became unregulated, and price wars started. This caused many previously successful airlines to go out of business, since they could not compete. And it caused almost all of the rest of the airlines in the US to operate on the verge of bankruptcy, or even to go bankrupt and merge with someone else. Meanwhile, everything that made airline travel enjoyable disappeared in the name of cost-cutting: more seats were crammed into less space, free snacks and drinks disappeared, movies disappeared. What we now have is flying Greyhound buses.

    Regulating the industry again and requiring higher minimum fares would solve a lot of problems. Fewer people would fly, so there’d be less congestion on planes, fewer planes in the air (which translates into fewer delays), and less stress on the travel infrastructure (e.g., less lost baggage). Higher fares would mean an end to all of the nickle-and-diming we currently have, since that one fee would cover everything. For you greenies out there, less airline travel means less damage to the environment.

    Oh, and higher fares would mean less chance of airlines going bankrupt and being bailed out by the taxpayers. Right now, those low fares are being subsidized by EVERYONE, even those who never fly, through tax money given to airlines.

    Re-regulate the airlines, or they will continue to worsen and worsen until they are nothing more than flying cattle cars. And then your only choice will be to take the train or shell out big bucks for one of the few remaining high-end airlines that realize that high cost is not a bad thing if it means you get better service.

  • Katie

    Ahhh Virgin Atlantic…such a wonderful flying experience. I took them on my first trip across the pond to England and was nearly as giddy that I could watch Jane Austen movies the entire way as I was that I was actually going to England.

    My recent trip to Ireland…old plane, random tellies dropping from the ceiling and Transformers. Which granted was MADE to while away the time on long flights…but still, I was seriously missing my seat back screen.

  • MaryAnn

    higher fares would mean less chance of airlines going bankrupt and being bailed out by the taxpayers. Right now, those low fares are being subsidized by EVERYONE, even those who never fly, through tax money given to airlines.

    It’s not as if it’s an automatic thing that a bankrupt airline would get bailed out by taxpayers — our elected officials have to decide to do that. And of course, those are the same elected officials who deregulated the airlines in the first place. So you’re probably right, Clay, that your suggestions could solve many problems with the airline industry, but as I was just saying in another thread, we have a government by corporations, for corporations these days. The little people don’t matter.

  • No, it’s not automatic that an airline gets bailed out when it goes bankrupt… but when’s the last time you remember an airline actually going out of business? (I can’t remember, either.) It’s true that these fare wars are being subsidized by taxpayers.

    First thing that needs to happen is that Southwest, the Wal-Mart of the Skies, needs to at least DOUBLE all of their fares. Sure, it’ll mean more money for them, but that one move would make an incredible difference with respect to the entire airline industry in this country. Higher fares = less travelers = shorter lines at security and more room on airplanes and generally a better air travel experience. Once the airlines are able to concentrate on quality of service, then those things we miss so much (not being charged to check a bag, peanuts, movies, better seating, etc.) can start coming back.

  • Clayj –

    You’re missing how markets work. If people cared more about service on airplanes than they did about price, than those carriers with better service would be making money rather than losing it hand over foot.

    Face facts: most people care more about the price of a flight than the experience. Markets don’t lie.

  • MaryAnn

    but when’s the last time you remember an airline actually going out of business?

    I don’t, but that’s not the point. Perhaps if the airlines were allowed to go bankrupt when the market dictated that they should, we’d be in a better position with regards to air travel. Alex, in the comment above, talks about markets, but we don’t have a true sense of what ordinary consumers want because companies that had been — to use an evolutionary metaphor — selected for extinction have been kept going artificially. What’s worse, those same companies, the ones that got a bailout on the taxpayers’ tab, haven’t learned a damn thing from the experience, and are now, again, passing on their operating expenses to us in the form of new fees for services that used to be part of the cost of a ticket.

    Also, the long security lines aren’t about security but about security theater.

    What I’m saying is this: The problem with the airlines isn’t just about the airlines. It’s a symptom of how completely clusterfucked up our country is on the whole, a huge portion of which is the fault of our corrupt federal government.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Airlines going out of business?

    Plenty of ’em: Braniff, TWA (one of my favorites, *sniff*), Eastern, Pan-Am (“the” airline, so soon forgotten?), and many a smaller carrier – all gone.


    Clayj, accept the fact that many people want the airlines to be more like bus service, and would just as soon have the bag of peanuts deducted from their ticket. I don’t like paying for checked bags, not one bit, but people who travel with carry-on only have been complaining for years about their ticket price including baggage costs, so there’s another side to the story. Now, it’s pay for the fuel to haul your bag separately from the fuel to haul your ass, and I don’t like it but I can understand the POV. Plenty of people are totally OK with paying extra for bags if it means they pay less if they don’t have a bag. Back in the day they called ’em airliners to evoke the idea of a luxury cruise on a ship with wings, but that attitude is fading. People used to dress up to get on an airplane; now it’s only “old people” that do that.

    Then there’s business travel, which is a large chunk of air traffic, and it’s not just CEO’s traveling first-class and by Learjet that fly a lot on business. Those ticket prices get passed on to all of us just as surely as taxes do. Double business ticket prices and we’ll all be paying more for everything.

    Concerning the actual topic of in-flight movies, the airlines always have charged a fee for the special headphones required to actually listen to the movie – is that any different than charging a fee for anything else? Why is that “ok” but other fees aren’t? It always annoyed me (except when I was in first class, where the headphones are free).

  • MaryAnn

    Now, it’s pay for the fuel to haul your bag separately from the fuel to haul your ass, and I don’t like it but I can understand the POV.

    Wait till the airlines start basing your ticket price on your body weight. I mean, why not? Doesn’t it cost more to fly fat people than skinny ones?

    the airlines always have charged a fee for the special headphones required to actually listen to the movie – is that any different than charging a fee for anything else? Why is that “ok” but other fees aren’t?

    Well, for one, you don’t *need* the headphones (or you could bring your own), but it’s hard to travel without luggage. Also, some airlines charge for water now, which you really do need when there’s no potable water on the plane (they warn you not to drink from the sink the bathroom), and you can’t even bring your own on the plane because of the stupid ban on liquids.

    And of course the whole paying-for-your-bags thing is running right up against all the restrictions on what you can carry onto a plane, so it’s not that easy to avoid having to check a bag, if you want to bring, you know, your shampoo and perfume with you.

    I’m not at all a rich person, not my any stretch of the imagination, but I’m seriously considering buying a business-class ticket for my trip to England in the fall, because flying coach has become such a nightmare that I’m not sure I want to face it. It might be worth paying through the nose to ensure a more pleasant flight.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Actually, it does cost more to fly fat people than skinny people, but I don’t think most people – the fat ones, especially :) – would go for that pricing structure. (BTW, airlines do charge extra for people that take up more than one seat, and the public’s okay with that.) There’s quite a bit of support for, and not enough resistance to, other measures like charging extra for bags or meals. Like I said, not everyone wants that bag of peanuts.

    To be fair, the asinine restrictions on what can be carried onto a plane are not the doing of the airlines, and they don’t like them either. And to be honest, the restrictions don’t affect travel-size containers of shampoo; and as for perfume that comes in bottles that big, well, there’s plenty of substitutes.

    And all I said was that there’s a flipside: if baggage costs extra, that means it isn’t included in the ticket price, so those that don’t have baggage don’t have to pay for it, and those people are very happy about it. I didn’t say I liked it – actually, I said the opposite.

    Water – that’s a different story. Charging for water is just plain cruel. What airline is actually charging for water? Do tell, so I can avoid them.

    You can’t bring your own headphones, unless you kept a pair you purchased previously from that same airline. You need their headphones. They’ve got that one figured out.

    As for being willing to pay extra for first-class for a better experience – well, that’s what first class is for, isn’t it? Frankly, I hate coach, though I can’t generally afford better unless the company’s paying for it, and I find coach hard to bear on long flights. It’s mainly the tiny cramped seat that bothers me, more than the lack of amenities.

  • First of all people just need to loose weight if they’re going to take up two seats. The inflight movie going out of style? That’s just depressing. The tiny, cramped, seat contributes to anybody’s cooped up feeling. On top of that, not everybody can have that bag of peanuts if you’re allergic and have to fly in the no-peanut section if there’s even still such thing. Buying food on planes can get annoying because you have to make sure they don’t run out of food.

  • Alex, I get how markets work. As MaryAnn pointed out (and as I pointed out, indirectly), the airlines are basically being subsidized by the taxpayers every time one of them gets bailed out. No airline can be allowed to go out of business because then some people might lose their “right” to air travel, and virtually no other airline can afford to acquire them. And of course we don’t want any one airline to have any sort of monopoly at any given airport. So in order for the current system to work, we have to have multiple airlines, all of which are capable of returning a profit… and in this age of superexpensive jet fuel and fare wars, it’s damn near impossible for an airline to do that.

    So, we can either:

    1. Stop bailing out airlines that fail, recognizing that this means that some airports will lose virtually all of their commercial air traffic and that many Americans will find it nigh impossible to travel by air. And we may end up with a single airline, Southwest, before we are done.

    2. Just nationalize the damn things (which is a bad, bad idea) and run them at no profit.

    3. Keep up the current, really broken system.

    4. Or re-regulate the industry as I suggested above, so that a measure of stability is returned to the industry and we can stop worrying about them going out of business every year. We regulate all kinds of industries, but it’s airlines that seem most desperately in need of it.

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