Book Review Published in Transportation Journal, Spring 2014.
Full Upright and Locked Position: Not So Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
2013, 331 pp.
As any air traveler knows, flying today bears no resemblance to the relatively luxurious experience of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In fact, air travel in the 21st century is deeply unpopular from the passenger viewpoint. The reasons why are explained by Mark Gerchick, aviation consultant and former FAA and DOT executive, in “Full Upright and Locked Position: Not So Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today”.
The book consists of ten chapters and an extensive bibliography. The first three chapters provide an overview of the current state of the airline industry. The reader is reminded that pre-deregulation air travel was not unpleasant, if not as glamorous as sometimes portrayed. While acknowledging the major upheavals in aviation between 1978 and 2001, the author points out that even bigger changes have occurred post 2001. Examples are the commoditization or air travel, the reduction of supply to meet demand instead of competing to offer more flights, and the unbundling of services adding fees to the basic fare. The contradictions are striking. Air travel has never been safer nor more dehumanizing. The technology is amazing yet airlines are now mass transit bound by strict rules and rigid processes. The goals are tight schedules, operating efficiency, and revenue maximization to the detriment of customer service.
The airlines’ safety record is thoroughly examined with ample supporting statistics. According to Gerchick, more than three billion people flew on US airlines from 2007 through 2011 with 50 fatalities, all in a single regional airline crash. In spite of this record, 30 million Americans admit that they are anxious flyers. Chapter 4 describes the aura of airline pilots, the “disembodied voice behind the steel door”. The pilot’s reassuring messages from the cockpit about “a little turbulence” are designed to calm passengers while giving minimal information. An inside the cockpit view portrays the boredom of flying, struggles against sleep, and constant complaining about schedules. Indeed, pilots are sometimes seen by their employers as angry whiners.
Chapter 5, “Fares, Fees, and Other Games”, probably the least readable chapter in the book, attempts to explain the myriad pricing schemes faced by passengers shopping for fares on the internet. After dropping from 1995-2011, air fares are now rising 4-8% per year and the FAA predicts continued rising fares for the next 20 years. In addition, baggage fees and other charges have created new revenue streams for airlines. This chapter does shed light on fare codes and “fare buckets” which allow airlines to maximize revenue and load factor.
Some of the most disturbing aspects of air travel are included in Chapters 6 and 7. There is no question that being a passenger for hours in a flying tube can be unhealthy. The hazards include respiratory issues from stale air, bacteria in close quarters, and blood clots resulting from inactivity. This list is followed by horror stories about planes sitting for hours on the tarmac and the effect on passengers and crews. In most cases there is no real DOT investigation of these incidents. DOT simply collects data about these delays and passes it along to the airlines. There is much opportunity to improve regulations and enforcement of consumer rights in our air travel system. Regulators have historically been charged with both promoting civil aviation and regulating safety with no real oversight of customer service. Further consolidation means less competition so a little more regulation may be in order.
The last three chapters of the book cover the pleasures of 1st Class and Business Class and a look into the future. The author describes Business Class as “the absence of pain” with the seat as the biggest differentiator. In other words we are not going back to the glamorous days of air travel unless you can afford a private flight or a ticket on Emirates Airline. Thanks to 9/11 and the TSA there are no more “daddy moments” for weary arriving travelers. Surges in jet fuel will continue to lead to new fees, reduced capacity and full flights. The rise of low cost carriers such as Southwest threatening the existence of legacy carriers leads to consolidations and mergers.
Analysts predict an industry on the brink of stability if not big profits. It may be said that we are approaching a 3+3+3 air system. Three huge network carriers, three nationwide low cost carriers, and three global alliances.
According to Mark Gerchick, these changes can be good for both the airlines and their passengers. Airlines are managing their businesses smarter when they control costs and match supply with demand. Revenue management and fees are important tools but unpopular with consumers. However, if airlines can achieve stability and sustained profitability the hope is that they will begin to compete on customer service as well as price.
This is a highly informative and entertaining book.
Mitch Kostoulakos, CTL
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