Awesome Rant

Kudos to Kimberly Strassel for going off on a world class rant against their airlines, and their desire to blame their woes on "oil speculators."

I want to say thanks for the July 10 email you sent to
all your customers seeking to explain why today's air travel experience
is so painful. The letter, signed by 12 of you, explained that "oil
speculators" -- presumably by betting on future oil prices -- are
killing your industry and thus requested that I, as a consumer,
pressure Congress to rein in this "unchecked" market "manipulation."

I admit that just lately I'd begun to feel that flying
was something akin to having my intestines fished out with a long hook.
Actually, I'd been wondering whom to blame for the fact that it would
probably be cheaper, easier and maybe even faster to drive to wherever
I want to go than to board one of your planes. Suddenly, all is clear.

I now understand that it is oil speculators who set
your hiring policies and who must have outlined the three types of
people you may employ: those who grunt at me, those who sigh deeply as
if my presence has ruined their day and those who are actively hostile
to my smallest request.

She goes off for quite a bit more.  Check it out.  I guess I am glad somebody's futures are going up in value.  My airline travel futures, also known as frequent flier miles, seem to get devalued constantly.

  • Strassel's column was fun to read but it misses the point. The airlines are attracting record numbers of customers despite their terrible service. Their prices are now so low that they can't make a profit, but customers are still flying despite being treated like learning-disabled cattle. Once they get the courage to charge a price that will make them some money, and they still treat people like animals, then Kimberly will have a theme. The connection between the admittedly silly "speculator" complaint and the poor level of service, though, is weak.

  • ErikTheRed

    Funny... I got a similar letter via snail mail from Hawaiian Airlines. I didn't bother writing them back, but dammit, I thought that at them. Which, uh, hopefully does something to their karma or something.

  • Let the airlines that haven't been buying futures die. 5 years ago many airlines and more so airline execs scoffed at SWA's use of futures to mitigate price change risks as something airlines don't do. They had no reasons back then other than they were airlines and since airlines didn't traditionally do this that meant no one should be. It's unfortunate that a lot of good workers are having to pay the price for some of their leaders poor choices. Southwest doesn't do it to save money on fuel. It's a type of insurance policy for them so they can better plan for the upcoming years.

  • dearieme

    Change your destinations. Friends tell me that Singapore Airlines are terrific; we've had good service from Air New Zealand.

  • I've flown Singapore Airlines several times through Asia and they're really very good.

  • CT_Yankee

    The "driving is better" choice has already arrived. This Spring my 1,000 mile (each way) trip to Atlanta was made in a 500 mile/tank car. No time spent searching for the best flight, getting someone to drop us off at the airport, waiting to be hastled by TSA, no worrying about sitting on the runway for an hour, or perhaps being bumped or having the flight canceled (spending vacation in a terminal), no limits on baggage or shampoo, and we left in each direction when we felt like it. Then we had a car while we were there and didn't have to spend time or money to rent one. In the past, I would have chosen to fly on a trip that far. In the future, I wonder how far I will be driving.

  • Dr. T

    To dearieme:

    If I could get all my family, friends, and the businesses I deal with to relocate to New Zealand, flying those airlines would be great. Otherwise, I'm stuck flying Delta, Northwest, United, etc. to travel within the U.S.

    To Craig:

    I believe you are incorrect about the record numbers of fliers. I do not believe that most U.S. airlines have come close to their pre-9/11 numbers. Total air passenger-miles are at record levels worldwide, but I don't think that's true for just the U. S.

  • K

    The problem with airline service is not the fuel cost but the increasing strain on their employees. As losses mount the airlines cut workers and they also cut the amenities offered to passengers. This irks everyone - neither passengers or employees are saints.

    The reduced work staff has to do more. And those meeting the public, in the terminals and in flight, are simply overworked. When staff is short hours become even more irregular - airlines don't run 9 am to 5 pm.

    Tempers flare, sick days increase, responsibility is evaded, insomnia and moodiness become chronic, depression is diagnosed, and the prescriptions confuse the patient.

    The trend is not good. But airlines are not operated by ogres who plan to punish travelers. And the employees didn't secretly agree to become mean people.

    I long ago retired from an airline. I have no doubt about the problems. My daughter takes 150 flights a year for her company and has for 15 years - no, she isn't in an airline related business - and she says it keeps getting worse.

    There is no magic bullet. The rich now try to travel by chartered jet. The super-rich own their own jets. And the masses read blogs.

  • linearthinker

    CT Yankee, et al:
    I last flew at Christmas, 1999. Changing flights in Dallas, I got to my departure gate at the extreme far end of the terminal with moments to spare for check-in. The check-in area was unstaffed. A lineup of over one hundred disgruntled passengers were waiting, and gave me the evil eye as I trotted past them toward the head of the line. As I turned and started back to the end of the line, the PA system said: "American Airlines passengers ticketed for Tulsa, your bus is boarding at curbside opposite Gate 52." I hustled down and got the last seat on the bus. Leaving DFW we drove past about 20 idle AA planes. Parked. Skys were clear. Runways open and deiced. Arriving about eight hours later in Tulsa, our luggage was piled in an unattended mountain in the middle of the terminal. It beat us there by flying. Go figure. How could they overbook an entire flight?

    For me driving has beaten flying since long before 9/11. I'm lucky that I don't have to fly.

  • John Dewey

    Dr. T: "To Craig:
    I believe you are incorrect about the record numbers of fliers. I do not believe that most U.S. airlines have come close to their pre-9/11 numbers. Total air passenger-miles are at record levels worldwide, but I don't think that's true for just the U. S."

    What data led you to that conclusion, Dr. T?

    The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports both number of passengers and revenue passenger miles set all time records in 2007. Here's the numbers from the website of this Department of Transportation agency:

    U.S. air carrier traffic on domestic routes:

    passengers 2000 - 610.0 million
    passengers 2007 - 678.1 million

    Rev Pass Miles 2000 - 508.1 billion
    Rev Pass Miles 2008 - 592.3 billion

    U.S. air carrier traffic on international routes:

    passengers 2000 - 55.5 million
    passengers 2007 - 90.4 million

    Rev Pass Miles 2000 - 184.4 billion
    Rev Pass Miles 2008 - 237.1 billion

    The year 2000 was the peak of the pre-9/11 years, the last year of a decade of growth. As you can see from the numbers above, the U.S. airline industry continued to grow after the post-9/11 recovery. Airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue gained passengers while some of the legacy carriers have shrunk.

    Craig was correct in stating that "The airlines are attracting record numbers of customers", if he was referring to the U.S. passengver airline industry as a whole through 2007.

    Dr. T was correct only if he was referring to a handful of the legacy carriers which shrunk and never recovered to pre-9/11 levels. But those legacy carriers are not the entire industry.

  • John Dewey

    K: "The problem with airline service is not the fuel cost but the increasing strain on their employees. As losses mount the airlines cut workers and they also cut the amenities offered to passengers."

    It's true that the legacy airlines have been reducing their workforce. Southwest Airlines, though, has more employees today than at any time in their history.

    It's true that all of the legacy airlines are reducing capacity significantly this year in response to high fuel prices. Southwest Airlines, though, will continue to expand through the end of 2008 and in 2009.

    K: "Tempers flare, sick days increase, responsibility is evaded, insomnia and moodiness become chronic, depression is diagnosed, and the prescriptions confuse the patient."

    I can understand that employees uncertain about their future will be justifiably moody. Southwest Airlines employees, who face no threat of layoffs, seemed confident and cheerful on flights I've taken this year.

    For what it's worth, Southwest Airlines is the most unionized of all the U.S. airlines. Southwest Airlines also has the highest productivity levels in the industry, measured by either passengers per employee or revenue passenger miles per employee.

  • K

    John Dewey: I intended my comment to be descriptive not prescriptive.

    Your comment puzzles me because it seems to neither agree or disagree with anything I wrote.

  • John Dewey

    K,

    I'm pointing out that your description of airline employees does not apply to all airlines. Employees at Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska are not exhibiting bad tempers or moodiness. They're not depressed. They're not evading responsibility. They're not increasing sick days. Furthermore, it is likely they are working just as hard as their counterparts at the legacy carriers. Overall productivity - employees per available seat mile (ASM) - is higher at these three carriers.

    How did Southwest, Jetblue, and Alaska succeed in this tough environment when the rest of the industry has failed? Much better management decision-making over the past decade.

  • K

    John: I still think you make no point.

    Airlines that aren't laying off and cutting service have happier and more effective employees? Astonishing? Who would have guessed?

    Some airlines have had better management decision-making? Golly. The revelations just keep coming.

    I never said my remarks applied to all airlines.

    If I had said dogs have four legs you probably would have said some dogs lose legs in accidents.

  • John Dewey

    K,

    Sorry, but as I see it your original post of Jul 19, 2008 4:11:20 PM, was a criticism of an entire industry, not just some of the carriers in that industry. You made no attempt to list the carriers to which your description applied. Until I challenged you, you never revealed that you were referring to only some U.S. passenger airlines.

    Southwest Airlines carries more passengers in the U.S. than any other airline. Continental, Alaska, and JetBlue are also significant carriers. Your descriptions of the airline industry are not valid for any of those four companies and their employees.

    I will continue to defend the outstanding companies in my industry against such general criticisms as you launched in your original comment. I can only hope that you will in the future be a little more careful and precise in your criticisms.

  • K

    There was no general criticism of the industry. I spoke specifically to current difficulties at loss-making airlines. And your saying otherwise doesn't make it otherwise.

    My first words were: "The problem with airline service is not the fuel cost but the increasing strain on their employees. As losses mount the airlines cut workers and they also cut the amenities offered to passengers.".

    And later I added: "The trend is not good. But airlines are not operated by ogres who plan to punish travelers. And the employees didn't secretly agree to become mean people."

    Hope whatever you like about the future. I presented my views on the causes of the decline in service. And I was describing matters, I said nothing about how to fix them.

    Perhaps I should have said satisfaction with "airline travel" instead of "decline in service."

    Before they ever reach the boarding gate some passengers are already upset about the security measures and added regulation of traffic and parking at most airports. And passengers grow more tense when they sense tension and strain in the airline staff and the other passengers. A given airline is responsible for only part of problem or perhaps none at all but passengers often to blame the carrier or the industry in general.

    You write: "I can only hope that you will in the future be a little more careful and precise in your criticisms."

    Hah! Nice smear tactic with overtones of authority and oversight. It might work on someone, not with me.

    Not only did I not launch a general criticism of the industry, I didn't launch a criticism at all. I merely related what happens when airlines cut operations staff and amenities during adversity. A positive feedback cycle is established; dissatisfied customers and worried, heavily worked staff.