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

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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. 

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Read/Post Comments (18) | Recommend This Article (12)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2014, at 5:12 PM, Alman2013 wrote:

    No I wont, havent flown since 9/11 and will never fly again !!! hope the airlines go broke, and if ya'll had any backbones and wanted the change ya'll voted for, stop flying and change will happen !!!

    Keep listening to and voting for Hateocrats and you will reap what you have sown!!! More taxes, teachers, cops, unions and gov employees love all the benefits ya'll are paying for plus the golden parachute retirements they get while you struggle with social security plus pay for bennies & watch them take that away from ya'll !!! Ya'll get exactly what you deserve!! keep voting them back in office !!!

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2014, at 5:21 PM, Iaintnosucker wrote:

    80% full at takeoff? More like 98%. Every time I've flown there's been maybe 2 or 3 empty seats, if that.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2014, at 6:14 PM, jdmeth123 wrote:

    Well, I haven't flown for almost 40 years, and that was on a military charter. I'm not going to fly anywhere now unless I get drafted again.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2014, at 7:43 PM, ctpjr1 wrote:

    I have had one trip by commercial air in the US after 9/11. I have never had the second. It may cost more for Net Jets but let's face it what is more compared to what is nothing from our so called commercial airline industry? Rather drive or take a train to be very honest. At least I know that I will be travelling with some comfort and without a Hertz Rent-A-Cop demonstrating that they do not have a clue about security. I will not speak to the service on the airlines themselves because you cannot speak to something that simply does not exist.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2014, at 7:58 PM, fordthunderbird wrote:

    I retired from my job as a flight attendant in 2005, and I have not been on an airplane since. If the passengers think things have changed for the worse let me tell you the crewmembers feel the same way only ten times over. I have no intention of ever getting on a commercial airliner again.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2014, at 9:20 PM, tkell31 wrote:

    Flying used to be a lot of fun. Now I would get arrested for doing any of the things I did before 9/11. Now it's a necessary evil to get somewhere I want to go, and I think it's probably most similar to a cattle car with everyone crammed into every space possible.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2014, at 9:39 PM, mustang6984 wrote:

    I'd rather walk to Boston from Seattle than EVER get on a flying Greyhound Bus again.

    Not sure which is worse, the proliferation of low-class passengers who can't even be bothered to bathe before they fly, the lack of civility toward cabin staff from the lower class passengers, the ripping off of passengers by the airlines (charging customers for every little thing) or the stupidity of ANYONE who believes that the insanity of rules set up by TSA has made flight any safer.

    My last flight was "blessed" with a 6-7 year old with a "mother" who had no idea how to be a parent, and who was insanely rude to the attendants, and a moron who threatened a stewardess and whom I had to inform that I was going to start breaking bones of if he touched another one. (He seemed to think tapping their butts was funny. He was placed in a window seat by the captain, and sadly, since I was a former cop, I got to sit next to his sorry self the rest of the flight. He was arrested when we landed.)

    As for the TSA joke...most everyone who gets on a plane has between 2-4 "weapons on them. all capable of being deadly. So much for TSA keeping air travel safe!

    No more for me. I now drive where ever I need to be.

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2014, at 2:52 AM, gigbit wrote:

    Seating is stuffy, you have to walk sideways in a plane. If it take under 10 hours I rather drive.

    The airlines nor the federal government care about people safty or comfort.

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2014, at 7:07 AM, fujidan wrote:

    I once love air travel, having started in 1967. But now I absolutely hate it. I will not fly again. Airlines with their money grubbing ways and TSA have ruined it for me.

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2014, at 10:04 AM, haplotype wrote:

    Call a waambulance. You want a 99 dollar transcontinental flight with lobster served on china with champagne and a massage and a row to yourself... well then pay for it. It's called first class, but I doubt any of you cheapskates would even know that exists. The only reason airlines "suck" is because they even offer seats cheap enough for you low lifes to consider buying them. 25 years ago you'd be driving or taking the bus.

    Classic American attitude. I want everything but I don't want to pay.

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2014, at 11:09 AM, bleep67 wrote:

    Stop complaining people, you are getting EXACTLY what you asked for. Long ago airline execs realized that by far, the single most important factor people use when choosing an airline was PRICE. Enter the budget/low fare airlines offering bare bones service, while slashing employee pay and benefits, all for the sake of selling a cheaper ticket. As their market share grew, the established carriers either went out of business or merged (circling the wagons)' while exacting concessions from their own employees, charging fees for what was complimentary in the past, and trimming amenities and service.

    It's the Wal Martizing of the airline industry, and it was brought on by consumer preferences. Rather than spew your indignation and disgust, maybe you should check to see if the same thing is coming to an industry near you?

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2014, at 12:57 PM, agentwebb wrote:

    people are getting larger & the airlines keep reducing the seating area for us all. The flights are always full and the biggest joke of all is the TSA.

    I'm not going to drive to Las Vegas and around the country to my clients, so have to fly.

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2014, at 2:58 PM, SparkyUK3 wrote:

    We have been traveling for over three years now and I can tell you flying is our least favorite mode of transportaion. We go to great lengths to avoid flying and take ferries or cruises, trains, boats, buses, etc. whenever possible. Airlines should be embarrassed at the service they provide but that's simply not the case as they laugh all the way to the bank! They now seem to have any and all freedom to do and charge whatever they like so thank the government for that. TSA is also ridiculously over the top and do I feel more secure because of their practices--absolutely NOT! Provisions should be made for regular travelers even if it means we provide our own "iris identification". This technology has been available for a long time and is THE most reliable I.D. but why is it not being adopted? I will continue to avoid flying whenever and wherever possible.

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2014, at 4:36 PM, Steve3434 wrote:

    Boo Hoo!!

    I have never heard such whiners. Some of these posts sound like a gaggle of spoiled kindergarten children crying about reduced recess privileges. Grow up already, for goodness sskes! In comparison, flying is the least expensive and most time-saving mode of transportation available today.

    Like everything else in life, flying is what you make of it. If you go in with a bad attitude and expect the worst, that is usually the outcome that you will experience. Try driving 1500 miles straight through on a regular basis with nothing more than gas and bathroom bteaks, and you will begin to appreciate the "horrors" of flying, I guarantee it!

    The airlines do not owe their clients anything more than to safely transport them from Point A to Point B in a timely manner and for a fair price, which they do quite well. Thousands of flights take off and land every day without incident, yet there is always some schmuck that feels he or she deserves preferential treatment, "just because". Hilarious and sad!

    If you hate flying, you probably hate all sorts of other things as well like: patience, understanding, tolerance, courteous behavior, managing anger issues, people in general, etc., so by all means, please use an alternate mode of transportation. No one wants to hear you whine about nothing that really matters anyway.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2014, at 12:08 AM, Dadof wrote:

    You get what you pay for. If you want first class service, then buy a first class ticket. If you want more legroom pay a little more on most flights and you can get a seat with 6 extra inches. I fly at least once a week for business. I find that most of the airline staff is cheerful helpful and respectful if they are treated in the same manner by me. Flight attendants are happy and try to make me comfortable. TSA is also helpful and courteous if you treat them that way.

    I also find that flights are often delayed or over booked and I spend many extra hours at the airport. My company will only pay for an economy class ticket and I know what it feels like to fly from Dallas to Sao Paulo in economy.

    By far the worst part of flying is the other passengers that push in front of you in long security because they think they are more important than you or they got to the airport late and didn't plan ahead. Then there are the passengers that verbally attack gate personnel because a plane is late or a flight attendant because the movie isn't the one they wanted.

    I have to fly and I find it is a much more enjoyable experience for me if I show up on time and treat airline employees, TSA staff and fellow passengers with respect. The next time you fly, try helping that mother and her bawling 2 year old, with her carry on luggage and you will have a much more enjoyable flight.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2014, at 12:45 AM, buzzltyr wrote:

    airline travel is the cheapest way to travel and the fastest, uses a lot less fuel than driving.

    Don't expect it to go away

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2014, at 3:04 AM, RattyDad wrote:

    Speaking as an "insider" I believe with other posters that travelers are getting what they asked for. I don't mean this in a derogatory way, just an observation. Airlines want to be first in the o-n line search results because that's how many travelers buy. This gives you add-on bag fees, fees for better seats and maybe even fees to access to the overhead bins. When the weather is bad, you don't want to risk sitting on the plane too long. The government obliged and set out strict rules. Now airlines cancel flights at the drop (or forcasted drop) of a snow flake. Many of the people you meet behind the counter or watch on the ramp work for third party vendors. Some make barely minimum wage. This keeps your ticket costs down, but if something goes wrong they may have limited ability or even interest in making it better. Imagine if your local fire, police and teachers were bid out to the lowest contractor. Many taxpayers would be thrilled, until they needed the service. It's a bus with wings, and sadly, not likely to change.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2014, at 3:07 AM, scotchian wrote:

    Flying's not as much fun as it used to be, but you can make it less dreary by always flying with a foreign-flagged carrier. Even domestic routes often have foreign carriers covering them. The reason the service is better and the free meals and drinks are still in place on many foreign carriers is that many countries subsidize their national airlines.

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Rich Smith

As a defense writer for The Motley Fool, I focus on defense and aerospace stocks. My job? Every day of the week, I'm monitoring the news, figuring out the winners and losers, and tracking down the promising companies for you to invest in. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the most important developments in defense & aerospace, and other great stories.

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