Air travel just doesn’t fly anymore

Aside from family car trips, my first real travels started on a train. I was 11 years old and heading to Montreal from Niagara with just my best friend. We were going to visit his grandmother and meet up with his father, who would then drive us out to New Brunswick on Canada’s East Coast.

Having criss-crossed Canada a couple of times in the two decades since, and now circumnavigated the globe, that little trip seems pretty short, but for an 11-year-old, it was like going to a different planet – and anyone that’s ever been to Quebec will tell you, that’s not far off.

As such, train travel has always maintained a warm spot in my heart. However, North American train service has died a slow death as domestic airlines fought for lower and more obtainable seat fares. I mean, why would you pay the same price for a ticket that would take 5x as long?

But I think the airlines are now paving the way for a resurgence in train travel, as they seem to be forgetting what made their service great in the first place – comfort and convenience.

In the past week I’ve read news about JetBlue charging $7 for a pillow and blanket and USAirways charging $2 for water. Near all the (US domestic) airlines are making passengers cough up additional fees for checking luggage and even considering changing their flight.

Now, I understand that fuel prices being what they are the airlines have had to get creative to try and limit ticket increases – but this is just getting stupid.

Sure, it could be argued that trains and buses don’t give you free food and beverages – however, trains and buses also don’t lock you in a tube at 40,000 feet for hours at a time, and (due to “tightened security”) also don’t own a monopoly on what drinks you can bring on board.

I’ve always hated air travel. I love flying, but the ticket-buying process has always made me itch. Unlike a train or bus, plane fares fluctuate by hundreds of dollars depending on the time of day/week/month/year, the airline, your hair colour, or whether you wear shoes laced in or out. The whole thing makes me tenser than the last 5 minutes of an eBay auction.

Then, when you finally nab the absolute best price (or say “fuck it” and settle) you find that your great ticket price doesn’t include any (seemingly random) combination of the following:

  • Airport Passenger Facility Charges
  • Federal Segment Fees
  • September 11th Security Fee
  • a Travel Facilities Tax
  • foreign and U.S. government-imposed charges
  • Facilitation Fee
  • Online Air Transaction Service Fee.
  • Offline Air Transaction Service Fee.
  • Processing Service Fee.
  • Paper Ticket Shipping Fees.
  • Fees for Changes/Cancellations/Refunds.

Where did it all go so wrong? When did the airline industry get so byzantine that it shucked the simplistic and uniform pricing and purchasing model that seems to work damn fine for just about everything else we buy?

And why do we as consumers stand for it?

I’ll tell you why – we don’t know who to blame. The ticket agents pin it on the airlines and airports; the airports on local governments; and the airlines blame it all on the cost of fuel and, most ironically, back on us for our lack of desire to fly more.

So, air travel industry, may I suggest you stow your blame and place your attention in its full upright position. If you continue to convolute your pricing, complicate the purchasing and condescend your customers – I, for one, am quite happy to take the train.

10 Responses

  1. And with all those wide open plains and praires, surely North America is ripe for a decent high speed railway, like France’s TGV or China’s CRH? Perhaps something even faster- both the TGV and CRH have shown 400 km/h is within reach. And surely those mountains are far more spectacular from a train with huge sightseeing windows than from some tin can at high altitude with tiny little portholes? And trains are just so much more fuel efficient….

    I’m with you, rail is the way of the future.

    I only hope that New Zealand’s next government (which is, unfortunately, likely to be the conservative opposition- they’re still stuck in the last century trying to pretend the Chicago school of economics actually had anything of value to offer the world) has the balls and the brains to properly invest in our newly renationalised railways.

  2. It all started to go south (bad) when the airlines were deregulated in the 80s. A totally free market is not always the answer. There’s apparently a role for the government (and the people) after all.

  3. @Chris: Can’t you just hike across NZ? Hell, hobbits can do it 😉 But yeah, highspeed trains are the answer, especially for the short hop flights – NYC->CHI, ATL->BOS, etc.

    In Canada we’ve longer stretches with nothing (anyone ever been to Saskatchewan? Trust me… all you can see for miles and miles are miles and miles). But a high speed train would certainly make a decent alternative to flying, and if it was done more accessibly, could actually save time – as you wouldn’t have to get to the airport a couple hours early and spend your time travelling out to the airport in the first place.

    @Jay: I agree – not that it hasn’t been referenced a number of times before – but healthcare is a prime example.

  4. Ryan, actually every year there’s a multisport event across the South Island, called the Coast to Coast. The hard ones do it in one day, the rest in two. Trouble with hiking is those bloody orcs.

  5. Ryan, I am from Saskatchewan, and you just brought a tear to my eye. The kilometers and kilometers of vast wheat and canola fields were something that I rather enjoyed watching while growing up and driving from Saskatoon to granny’s house in Elfros.

  6. @Chris: rotfl

    @Vance: I’ve done the trans-Canada twice West in a car and once back east in a Greyhound, whizzing through Sask. each time and didn’t get enough of it. The Great Plains are pretty awesome in the full sense of the term. I don’t know what it’d be like to live there, but it’s high up on my places to revisit.

    BTW: I knew I had spoken to someone in Hangzhou! Was down there just over a week ago, and would have been nice to grab a beer. Next time I guess.

  7. I’m with you on this all the way. I love traveling by train. Many of my most memorable travel experiences have been taking trains. Chicago to Seattle via the Empire Builder and Xi’an to Urumqi come to mind. Both about 2 days and both so surreal and unforgettable.
    I think the best thing about train travel is the feeling of actually traveling. After the long ride you really do feel like you’ve made the long distance you have. It’s great stepping off.
    The other thing is the people you meet. Whether it’s Chinese soldiers or Katrina victims, being on a train together seems to make everyone friends. (the drinking may have something to do with that too though 😉 )
    Hell yeah to trains. (although motorcycle travel is up there to 🙂 )

  8. Noticed something interesting while flying Air Asia the last two weeks–they have advertising for other companies everywhere (even on the outside of the plane). Also, their food and drinks aren’t outrageously expensive…especially when you consider that the flights are less than US$100 including taxes. The major airlines really need to reconsider how they conduct business.

  9. Just found your website and blog – very interesting and witty post I have today.

    I recently had to travel from Toronto to NYC in a short notice. I didnt feel like driving for 11 hours str8 by myself and so it was either train or plane (when I completely forgot about coach).

    The train was fine except that it took 12 hours to travel, not to mention we were all stuck at the border for at least an extra hour. I felt as if I was flying back from Toronto to Hong Kong. But to fly would have cost 7 times more, and that hasnt even incl those “taxes and surcharges”! Ouch!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *