Nonfiction

The good, bad of airline travel

 

An insider details everything from safety, seat prices, food sanitation to lost luggage.

Forget lingering romantic visions of aviation — today’s airlines run a mean, profit-seeking business and passengers are at their mercy. At least that’s what seems apparent in Mark Gerchick’s not-so-comfortable exploration of the industry’s transformation since Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2008 jet fuel cost explosion. A former FAA chief counsel and Transportation Department policy official turned aviation consultant, Gerchick brings 20 years of experience (and many airline miles) to a narrative that is part lifting of the veil and part condemnation of commercial airlines’ loss of soul.

“We’re angry about a broken bargain we imagine we have with the airlines,” Gerchick explains, referring to our perhaps naïve assumptions of care and comfort in the skies, while warning that “[t]he gap between our expectations of care and service and the reality of our air-travel experience has become a chasm.”

So with the bargain void, with what are consumers left? Gerchick’s book promises to leave us with knowledge of the sort of business with which we’re actually dealing, to make it less mystifying. “[W]e need to grow up and recognize what has changed,” he writes, and he’s here to help us do just that.

The truths Gerchick illuminates together sit as unpleasantly as the seats in Economy — almost. He provides juicy peeks into seat-price schemes and why airline miles programs aren’t really worth the trouble, as well as the better life aboard private jets. There are intriguing insights into the cause of delays and lost (and damaged) luggage, statistics about onboard fatalities, and why arriving early equals profitable “dwell time” for airport businesses. Most resonant is the explanation of how airlines’ extremely profitable extra charges came into being, now that airlines have decided they’re not selling flights but “a bundle of separable, flight-related services — transportation of luggage, making a reservation, having a seat assigned, snacks and drinks, legroom, even jet fuel” — fees that surpass the industry’s net profit.

Some mild repetition throughout the chapters can be annoying, though it’s understandable, given details’ relevance to different topics. And some of his health-related information is revolting, especially pertaining to the sourcing and preparation of purchased airline food, less than clean water used in making coffee and tea and the life of germs and diseases. He acknowledges “[y]ou don’t have to be a hypochondriac to get a little grossed out,” and he’s right.

Certainly these are particulars that the industry must not want to advertise. But Gerchick doesn’t appear to have an axe to grind larger that any ordinary air traveler would about what has now become a low-cost experience akin to riding a flying bus. And he smartly includes some hope for the future, mostly in the form of forthcoming technological improvements to the travel experience, such as the design of the Dreamliner aircraft.

But, the inescapable takeaway is that what we see today is here to stay. “Welcome to the new normal of air travel,” Gerchick quips. Sit back and relax? That’s a relic of the past.

Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.

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