Why Are Flights So Expensive? (But They Still Suck)

Bernardo Montes de Oca

If you ask the older passenger, they will say that, once, long ago, flying wasn't so bad, but, my, that has changed. Now, we look at air travel from a different perspective. Sure, it's safer, faster, and more economical, but the experience isn't pretty.

We've all seen the videos. Let's face it: who dares dry their underwear with the aircraft's AC? And this is going on after the pandemic. There are also all those videos about the feet, oh my god, the feet. So, what happened?

How did we go from the Golden Age of Aviation to now, where you're lucky if you get any breathing room? In this week's newsletter, we're looking at aviation and how, now, at the pinnacle of technology, flying sucks.

What Is Going On With Airlines?

You might not know of this, but in 2017, the US Court of Appeals reprimanded the airline industry. It wasn't about delayed flights, rising costs, or the major US airlines' monopoly. In the airline industry, a seat pitch is defined as the distance from one point of the seat in front to the same point in the one behind it.

During the 1950s and 1960s, considered the Golden Age of Aviation, some seats had up to 36 inches of pitch. In the 1970s, this pitch averaged 35 inches or 89 cm. At the same time, in 2017, this distance was 31 inches on average, with some airlines even reducing it further to 28 inches (and then, that's why people complain about why Spirit Airlines is so bad).

Airline seats have also gone on a diet, reducing their width from an average of 18 inches or 46 cm in the 70s to 16.5 inches or 42 cm in recent years. However, this directly conflicts with another harsh reality, at least in the US market.

The average American man has increased his waist size by 2 inches since the 1980s. As for a global scale, the case is similar. The average adult now weighs 186 pounds, compared to 155 pounds in the 1960s. In addition, 25% of women weigh more than 195 pounds. So, passengers are getting heavier, and the height for the average adult has also increased by 2 inches.

The problem, according to authorities, the problem is that doing so isn't only uncomfortable and dangerous. At least, that's what authorities insist, but airlines and manufacturers counter by stating that it's all safe and that they've run tests, even if the results are mixed.  

"The DOT Inspector General Report of September 2020 also noted that the FAA stated in denying the FlyersRights seat petition in 2018 that the Boeing 737-300 and Airbus 320 had demonstrated successful emergency evacuation with 28-inch pitches. However, the IG found this to be untrue. The IG found that of 30 plane makers evacuation reports filed with the FAA, "almost all used seats with pitches larger than 28, some up to 38 inches." Only one used 28 inches."

So, if passengers are getting bigger, seats are getting smaller, and it could be dangerous in an evacuation, why is this going on? It's all part of an effort from airlines all around the US and the world to maximize their efficiency.

The latest technology has made planes very efficient, with many flying long distances using less fuel. So, for airlines, it's now a race to cram as many passengers into them as possible, and this started happening as far back as the 70s.

How Deregulation Changed Flying

Before 1978, flying in the US followed rules that were almost set in stone. US-based airlines operated under the Civil Aeronautics Board, which stipulated every condition for these operators to work within the country.

The CAB had existed since 1938, but many felt it had outlived its purpose and earned a reputation for being inefficient, cumbersome, and bureaucratic. While explaining deregulation might be too complex and tedious for this video, some essential issues exist.

In short, according to Air and Space Magazine, the airline industry was at a critical point, and change was necessary. Therefore, Congress pressured for one essential change: a law allowing airlines to operate more freely, defining their own fares and routes.

That's not to say that, beforehand, regulation was evil. In fact, for years, especially after World War 2, the booming industry needed some control, and the CAB managed to fulfill that role. The problem was that technology was advancing rapidly, and the ways of yesteryear were getting old. One of the most significant changes was airfares.

To start, Congressional investigators compared fares of regulated airlines flying between states with fares of unregulated airlines flying within states. They found that unregulated airlines charged far lower fares. The sweeping change was needed, and Congress decided it would need to take action.

An old poster for American Airlines, showing comfortable seats with passengers enjoying drinks and talking. Below that, there are old planesw

What happened next was nothing short of chaos. The new act would change everything:

Airline fares: bye-bye to the rigid assumptions that planes had the same number of seats or that they needed only 55% of the seats filled.

Entering the market: new airlines would not have a fast pass toward approval, something the CAB was not known for. There's a legendary tale of Continental Airlines asking for a new route and the CAB rejecting it for eight years and only granting it after the US Court of Appeals approved it.

No more limitation agreements: The CAB had instilled deals to protect against so-called antitrust attacks, which created a higher cost for smaller airlines. In fact, its anticompetitive philosophy was welcome by big airlines.

Capacity: it's hard to imagine now, but once, airlines operated with empty seats. They believed that passengers who wanted to get into any flight should be able to do so. Those were the years.

Non-regulation worked just fine: a handful of non-regulated airlines operated well, proving that it was time for a change. The impact of 1978's Deregulation Act is still felt today.  

Thanks to all these changes, flying is easier. As we'll see later, it seems everyone can fly now, but it doesn't necessarily feel cheaper. Why is that?

So, Why Is Flying So Expensive? 

The answer to this question is complicated, especially in 2023. With a pandemic winding down, geopolitical conflicts directly affecting logistics and travel, and a surge of demand, paying for airl tickets now is expensive. In our eyes, it feels that way for a long time.

If we look at the following chart, it might seem that flying is always extremely expensive. After all, the chart indicates that air ticket prices always outpace inflation.

In this chart by Business Insider, we can see how air ticket prices outpace inflation

But what happens when we adjust things over time? We get an entirely different reality when we adjust those airfares to include inflation and how it has changed in the past three decades.

Flying has considerably dropped in price, and this is all thanks to deregulation back then. If we go back even more, the change is more dramatic. Yes, an air ticket cost $300 in 1980, but that equals almost $1,200 today, and it's all about perception.

Flying Seems More Expensive, But It Isn't

Let's face it. No one remembers inflation when we're buying our next air ticket. We're only looking at the price; inflation is a complex mathematical concept. We only rely on the prices that we were used to paying. So, in 2023, everything feels extremely expensive compared to 2018.

Then, there's the actual cost of an air ticket. Let's say you're flying from NYC to Austin. Is $300 a fair price? It's hard to say. After all, you can find a flight to Houston, which is the same distance, for half the cost. It all depends on complex factors, such as route frequency, passengers, competition, and fuel consumption, to name a few. We rarely think about these things, and honestly, we don't want to.

The problem is that airlines are also making the job a bit harder as the pricing structure has undergone significant changes, which is especially relevant today. For example, practically all airlines now have a basic economy section, and these tiers are anything but friendly.

They're known for offering a less desirable experience, with no seat assignment, no carry-on luggage, and being among the last to board the plane. This happens in both major carriers and low-cost airlines. In fact, in the cases of Delta, United, and America, this is the airline's response to competitors like Spirit or Frontier. However, it can be frustrating for passengers to purchase an "upgrade" to Economy class. Economy!

These factors contribute to our perception of the situation. In the chart provided, we can compare the average base fare for domestic flights in the US to the all-in fare, which includes baggage and seat selection. Keep in mind that these prices are not adjusted for inflation.

Over time, more airlines have stopped including checked bags with air tickets, while the fees for those bags have increased, resulting in a widening gap between the base fare and the all-in fare.

If we observe the chart, we can see that the two fares moved together throughout the 1990s but started to diverge after the 2000s, with the gap continually growing more significant.

Although adjusting for inflation shows a clear downward trend, with prices decreasing by 50%, it doesn't necessarily feel that way. Many of us still feel like we're being squeezed financially, and the overall travel experience seems to be getting worse and worse.

But, even so, what's fascinating is that both these fares have dropped over time, as the following chart shows. So here we can see how, at first, the base and All-in fares were the same and that, even with the years, the inflation, and the change in how we fly, at the end of it all, if we adjust them for inflation, the fares are almost the same, and most importantly, they're cheaper.

In the end, there's one direct impact of this. Earlier in the text, we discussed how more people fly thanks to these more accessible fares. Well, we can gladly say we're flying more now than ever! After all, global air travel has steadily increased in the last 16 years.

Of course, the pandemic rattled the airline industry, but the pace in which air travel has recovered is far faster than any other crisis in the past (for example, the 2008 financial crisis), and experts estimate that, by 2025, we will be in pre-pandemic levels.

Thanks to the complex variables that work behind the scenes, it's only possible to make flying cheaper, but let's not take away one thing. It's definitely not nicer.

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable.
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