While covering the consumer electronics industry in my day job for the past five and a half years, I’ve noticed just how ridiculously fast innovation has taken place, whether in TVs, phones, headphones or computers. The iPhone recently marked its fifth anniversary, and if you look at the current iPhone 4S compared with the original, the difference is astounding. The first iPhone—even though it was a breakthrough product at the time—had no apps, was much slower, and worked on a wireless network two generations behind those of today.
Now look at airplanes, and air travel in general. Where’s the innovation? Has the experience of flying on a plane gotten any faster, more efficient, or pleasant in the past five, 10 or even 15 years? I’d say the opposite is true: Flying, in 2012, is less convenient and more downright unpleasant now than at any point I can remember.
The planes don’t go any faster, they don’t take off on time any more frequently than they used to, and flights certainly haven’t gotten cheaper. The experience of flying on a plane hasn’t gotten any less unpleasant, and the planes themselves haven’t improved much either. On the average plane, the air quality and legroom remain as piss-poor now as they were 20 years ago.
Sure, a few airlines have added amenities such as in-flight TV, as well as WiFi that even works about 50 percent of the time on a good day. But those haven’t become standard, and other airlines haven’t exactly rushed towards adopting any of JetBlue’s features.
The one and only innovation that’s made flying better in the last decade is the advent of the iPad—and if you’ve been on a plane lately, you’ll see about 75 percent of passengers use them. But the airlines and FAA had nothing to do with that, and they’ve even tried to ruin it by continuing to insist—against just about all scientific evidence—that passengers turn off electronic devices during certain periods of the flight.
In many ways the flying experience has gotten worse thanks to new fees. Say goodbye to free food and drinks. In the last few years, several airlines have instituted bag-checking fees for the first time, due to “rising fuel costs”—though fees have somehow remained in place regardless of the many volatile fluctuations in fuel costs since. And when I called about getting a bereavement discount when I had to fly on less than 24 hours notice for my grandfather’s funeral, I was told by a US Airways rep that “we don’t do that anymore.”
That’s to say nothing of the joke that is the TSA, whose idiotic and fraudulent “security theater” measures have already been well-documented, and are entering their second decade of both exposing travelers to indignities and wasting their time.
Thanks to the TSA for continuing to protect us against such dangerous, murderous threats as water, shampoo and strawberry jam. And I’m sure the government’s vital national security needs require an elaborate, 13-point inspection of my two-year-old son’s sippy cup every time we take him on a plane. Good that they’re taking Congressman Louie Gohmert’s “terror babies” threat seriously, but come on, traveling with small kids is hard enough as it is.
Why doesn’t flying ever get better? It’s not like innovation is a complete stranger to the transportation sector. People mock Amtrak, sure, but the trains have gotten both better and faster in the recent past, while even buses have made things better in a way the airlines haven’t. Has any airline come up with the equivalent of the Acela or the Bolt Bus lately? Even the much-maligned auto industry has made greater strides in the last 10 years.
I realize the airlines aren’t exactly operating with a lot of extra capital these days, and they know that a lot of people fly because they have to, not because they want to. But at some point—whether it’s the increased fees, the unnecessary security hassles or the realization that none of this will be improving anytime soon—the airlines must realize that they’re showing nothing but contempt for their own customers, and it’s time to make the flying experience a little bit less unpleasant.