If You Haven't Flown in 5 Years, You're Going to Hate It

A new survey shows that one in three of us expects to do more air travel this year -- up dramatically from five years ago. If you haven't booked a flight in a while, here are five things that have made flying worse for passengers.

Feb 8, 2014 at 2:00PM

So you're planning to take a plane trip, you say? And you haven't flown in a handful of years? Well, before you buy that ticket, you might want to sit down and buckle in. Because air travel has changed a lot in recent years, and we've got a few revelations for you.

2009 was not a good year for air travel. Shocked (and made poorer) by the financial crisis, a lot of Americans spent the year sitting on their wallets, and sitting at home, opting for "staycations" rather than pricey air travel. 2010 wasn't much better, with only 16% of travelers saying they intended to do any more traveling than in 2009 (according to Gallup).

Lately, though, things have been picking up in the economy, and in the air travel industry.

American Express reports that some 32% of American consumers -- nearly one in three -- expect to do more airplane-flying this year than they did last year. In 2013, the number was 29%. And the year before that -- 27%. So statistically speaking, chances are good that even if you, personally, have been avoiding air travel of late, you're finally ready to take a plane ride again.

But once you head back to the airport, what should you expect to find when you arrive?

Rising prices
For decades, airlines tried to lure passengers with lower and lower prices for plane tickets. This trend culminated in historically low prices of $335 per plane ticket, on average, in 2009. But as passengers return to the air, airfares are rising steeply. According to U.S. Department of Transportation data, the average plane ticket had risen in price to $379 by 2012 -- a 13% increase. (Official figures for 2013 prices aren't out yet, but according to travel website Hotwire, they were up a further "4 to 5 percent for domestic travel" in 2013 -- which should put them close to $400.)

And niggling fees
And that's just the cost of the ticket. Following a "give with one hand, take with the other" business model, many airlines discovered that in order to make a profit at the low ticket prices they were charging, it was necessary to make up their losses by charging customers fees -- for everything from picking a seat, to checking a bag, to buying a ticket in the first place!

And as for complimentary alcoholic drinks on planes? Forget about it. If you're flying commercial these days, expect to get nickel-and-dimed to death for the privilege.

Limited selection
Over the past several years, travelers have seen many of the most familiar airlines disappear in a wave of consolidation, as airlines merged to cut costs (and competition). Delta (NYSE:DAL) ate Northwest. Southwest (NYSE:LUV) swallowed AirTran. United Continental (NYSE:UAL) is just one company today. And most recently, we saw US Airways merge itself into American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL).

Used to be, if you didn't like the price one airline was charging for a flight, you could always shop around for a better deal from someone else. Good luck with that today.

Fewer seats
Forty years ago, when airlines were charging twice as much (or more) for plane tickets, it wasn't entirely unheard of -- or even necessarily unprofitable -- for airlines to run planes with half their seats empty. Those days are long gone. The drive for efficiency, combined with the elimination of competition, has left the airline industry with barely enough planes flying to serve the needs of all the passengers who want to go places.

Passenger load factors -- basically, the percentage of seats full when a plane takes off -- have increased from the 50% range common in the 1970s, to the low 60%s in 1991, to 70% in 2001, and to a point where most recently, the years 2009-2011 routinely saw planes take off with 80% of seats (and usually more) filled with paying customers.

Buy a ticket today, and you shouldn't bet on, or even hope for, a few seats remaining vacant at takeoff, giving you an opportunity to stretch out a bit. These days, if you want to lay claim to a middle seat in addition to an aisle, you'll probably have to pay for them both -- up front, and in full.

And just generally speaking, worse service all around
There's an old saying that "you get what you pay for." But with airline travel, that's no longer necessarily true. This is because in addition to merging operations, airlines have found they can cut costs by merging jobs -- or eliminating jobs entirely. Between years of business declines that left them overstaffed, and vicious rounds of cost-cutting via "right-sizing," airline payrolls are now down several tens of thousands of jobs from their peak. Replacing full-time workers at the jobs that remain are part-timers and contracted workers from third-party firms, who may or may not deliver the kind of service you remember receiving some years ago.

Got a beef of your own with the airline industry? Share your aerial road warrior stories in the comments section below. 

Take a lesson from Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett has bought scores of airplanes for Berkshire Hathaway's Netjets subsidiary, but he famously shies away from investing in airlines. Instead, he's focused on his very best few ideas, bet big, and rode them to riches, hardly ever selling. You deserve the same. That's why our CEO, legendary investor Tom Gardner, has permitted us to reveal "The Motley Fool's 3 Stocks to Own Forever." These picks are free today! Just click here now to uncover the three companies we love. 

Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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