The future of US air travel doesn’t look pretty

Get ready for delays.
Get ready for delays.
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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I had a terrible travel experience earlier this week, trying to get from New York’s LaGuardia Airport back down the east coast to my home airport in North Carolina. And I wasn’t alone. My misery was due to a massive summer storm front that swept eastward, causing damage and delays from the Ohio Valley to the Atlantic. That heavy weather threat triggered a last minute cancellation of my original flight, a unilateral overnight rebooking by American Airlines, being pushed to partner USAirways, routed to an airport other than my original destination, then charged nearly twice the price of the flight for an economy rental car to drive the two hours home (all of this for the second time this year). And I didn’t get a pizza from the captain as some lucky fliers did.

There were probably tens of thousands of travelers caught up in the same snarl, basically the kind of weather-driven, cascading failure scenario that happens with increasing frequency these days. What ensued trying to get home, as the weather further south turned, was chaos that felt more like an emergency evacuation drill than a business trip. It also, sadly, showed me at least a half-dozen snapshots of the future of air travel we can probably expect in the US. Here are just a few characters that feature in this increasingly dystopian vignette:

1. Climate change-driven travel breakdown

The weather was at the center of the issue, and air travel authorities took some pre-emptive action to avoid worse problems. However, the conditions that are throwing more turbulent thunderstorms, snow, early hurricanes, dust—in short stirring the atmosphere more violently due to increased surface heating, shifting weather patterns and other consequences of climate change—are going to get worse over coming decades, according to scientists. Expect bumpier flights, more diversions and delays, and the higher costs that come with them in the future, particularly in the coastal and southern regions of the US where population is growing while flight schedules are generally shrinking.

2. Overworked and understaffed airlines

With the boom in consolidation among US air carriers have come some inevitable staffing cuts. Skift reported last year that US DOT data showed a net decline in airline employment over the past decade, even as costs have gone up and service quality declined. American (the most recent culprit for me) has cut staff by over 8% in the past year as it pushed for its merger with USAirways. Evidence on the ground, taking the form of a boom in self-service kiosks in airports, signals an industry strategy of pushing out more human interaction in favor of technology.

Unfortunately, these fairly dumb devices aren’t equipped to deal with anything other than the basic flight reservation modification and check-in. So they can’t support hundreds of stranded or delayed travelers staring at unmanned desks, as some of American’s lines at LaGuardia were in my situation. The same goes with the rental car industry, also moving to greater use of automated agent kiosks to deal with customers, which again, fail to offer ways to deal with non-standard situations.

3. More sharply stratified levels of service

A pattern I saw repeated from New York to Charlotte was the increasingly visible stratification of service, both physically—from “premier” loyalty service access points separated from the hoi polloi and their duffel bags—and digitally, through special logins and phone numbers for elite customers and other other loyalty-centered services.

The actual walls American built to screen its most highly-valued road warriors (and, incidentally, the handful of staff serving a line of three travelers, versus two staff members allocated to the “preferred” and economy lines collectively) are only one way the Uberfication of travel is skewing leverage toward more well-off or well-resourced travelers. Those who can afford it use their privileges to smooth the friction of inconvenience and/or get to available resources first. Or, if in New York, catch a helicopter to the Hamptons and skip the burden of the jitney. And as money now equals miles in more and more cases, the multiplier effect here increases.

In my own case, I watched as several rental car companies blocked stranded travelers like myself from walk-up rentals by slapping large “Reservations Only” signs on their desks and walking off—while reserving idle fleets in the parking lot for travelers who most likely weren’t ever arriving as it passed 12am. I was actually offered numbers for private car services by some rental car staff. It’s easy to see where an Uber or Lyft might want to muscle in on longer distance road travel, exploiting the distaste for existing rental firms.

4. Failure of regional hub-and-spoke models

The boom in regional carriers in the US has been driven by the majors spending the last few decades outsourcing large chunks of business to their regional carriers, particularly as the hub-and-spoke model of routing flights through regional bases such as Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Phoenix to fly to smaller markets has taken over. These arrangements have obscured the true performance of regional carriers and taken the teeth out of some regulations, in the view of some critics. Problems brought on by weather, lack of staff or even lack of “equipment” (a fancy word for an airplane) mean the weaker links in the air system get cut first, such as flights into second- and third-tier regional airports like my home port in Greensboro. Inclement weather in Chicago can mean no flight out from my nearby airport under sunny skies.

5. Surge pricing envy

Due to car-service Uber’s use of surge pricing it says is based on demand, dynamic pricing is now a notorious term, though airlines, hotels and rental car companies have long been the traditional masters of this strategy. Delays and cancellations at an airport can drive local hotel prices up dramatically, and likewise for one-way car rentals or last-minute flight changes, driven by weather or other misfortunes. Even your choice of technology can apparently impact pricing for travel. With greater data analytics will come even more egregious examples of dynamic pricing, and you can be sure other companies will look at Uber with envy when thinking about future pricing strategies. (Uber has agreed to curtail its surge pricing in emergencies, but time will tell how widely this will apply).

6. Social media as customer care

I’m one of many travelers who has taken to tools like Twitter to publicly voice frustration and unhappiness with the level of service provided in these situations. Some do it to gain a perk, others to find other means of getting assistance when lines are long or unstaffed and toll-free numbers clogged.

In my own experience, travel brands are quick to respond with a superficial “sorry you aren’t having a good day” but can provide little over these channels beyond a bit of brand protection. Social media tools like Twitter aren’t really robust enough to do in-depth crisis mitigation and travel planning. However, airlines have created their own crises using Twitter, showing how these tools so can become overused for simply trying to calm restless customers without actually fixing anything. Yet, as a low-cost customer touchpoint, like the self-service kiosks, travel brands’ social media presence will no doubt increasingly become a cheaper substitute for actual human assistance.

It’s no wonder that services like intercity buses, which feel like a throwback to a much earlier era, are making a comeback in the US, luring customers who are tired of being gouged, expect to wait anyway, and just want to move from place to place. But don’t worry, while you’re waiting for that future superbus on the ground, somebody with better connections will be zipping along in the sky above you via personal air taxi, sipping a cool drink, nodding in solidarity as they put in a “buy” order for surging airline shares.