12.12.11

Travel light, it’s cheaper

Posted in Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

I’ve flown a lot. Nowadays, that’s really not such a big deal to say. I was very excited to go to China a couple of years ago but my colleagues fly back and forth regularly. I’ve visited over 40 countries ( ‘round another 150 to go, I guess), but I know people who are hot on my heels collecting destinations, except they’re 15 years younger!

The modern airline industry only really got its start after World War II but has seen (see figure 1) over twenty-fold growth in traffic during that time. Revenue per mile that the airlines have earned has dropped seven-fold in a similar period. (see figure 3. This decrease in real price may explain how all of us are able to fly everywhere these days. Probably also explains all the airline bankruptcies.

Revenue per mile isn’t really the price we pay. The airline industry is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world and with regulation comes (hopefully) safety, but definitely costs. Much of that decrease in revenue per mile flown is due to costs, but real ticket prices haven’t increased much over time either. Airlines aren’t allowed to skimp on regulatory requirements, so, cost reductions mean reduced services for passengers.

And this is where I hear the constant din of complaints. The seats are small and cramped. The service is poor. The food is bad, and now they’re charging for it. There’s no room for bags, but they charge me now to bring luggage. It’s all more or less true, but it does surprise me how quickly we forget how amazing it is to fly around the world. Didn’t I mention over 40 countries? How would this be possible without inexpensive airfare?

Frankly, I am happy airlines have begun charging for food and luggage in addition to class of seat. Yeah, that’s right, they’ve almost always charged for quality of seat, but no one seems to notice that these days. Sure, they haven’t implemented the luggage charges in the most effective way. Passengers aren’t incentivized to bring less, but rather to squish as much as possible into the overhead instead of the luggage compartment. Still, charging people for the services that they use provides a signal that helps them decide if it’s worth it or not to bring an extra bag full of sweaters, just in case. I don’t have to enjoy being trapped in a tiny seat for several hours without so much as a bag of peanuts to keep me company, but no one is stopping me from bringing my own preference of snacks onboard.

Why should I be forced to subsidize the behavior of others with my ticket prices? I travel light. If baggage prices are in addition to the ticket price, then I can fly more cheaply. I don’t care for airline food much more than you do. With a little preparation, I can bring cheap, healthy food prepared ahead of time on my flight and if you don’t have the time or inclination to do so, I don’t see why I have to pay for your meal. I gave up drinking on planes too. The thin, recycled air and cramped seats just didn’t make a glass of beer in a plastic cup worthwhile to me. If I don’t avail myself of this benefit, why should I be required to subsidize the drunk next to who’s had four and is about to be cut off by the flight attendants?

Instead of thinking of luggage fees and meals as extra charges, look at them as discounts available to those who want to take advantage of them. I, for one, am thrilled to finally see a financial benefit for my willingness to travel light. It sucks to be shuffled from place to place like incredibly fancy cattle but remember you are flying, thousands of meters in the air, in an almost comfortable chair, arriving half way around the world in less than a day. It really is amazing.

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