Last weekend, I was in Ann Arbor to celebrate a family bar mitzvah – and my partner’s nephew Isaiah, who is a HUGE aviation fan, decorated this Fathers’ Day card. (hard to see due to the shadow, but there is a “Dad <3” sign trailing behind the little jet). I think my “old age” has ruined my sense of wonder at flying – it just seems stifling, inconvenient and stressful now.
Nearly every time I fly, I end up in impossible, catch-22 negotiations with airlines, begging for crumbs, and reaching my destination bleary-eyed, resentful, and half-nauseous despite having forked over hundreds of hard-earned dollars. My go-to explanation is that airlines are evil companies extorting us and lining the pockets of executives and shareholders. This week, I decided to do some research to find out if that’s true or not. It turns out the airline industry (while it is pretty evil) is also pretty data-driven and low-margin… and… believe it or not… fascinating. Maybe Isaiah is rubbing off on me!
Why do planes always seem to leave at lousy times??? Plane scheduling is like the Mother of all Sudoku puzzles – with pretty high stakes! The biggest airlines tend to organize their schedules in “bundles” so that the greatest number of incoming passengers can get on a connecting flight to their final destination. This is kind of risky, because if there is a storm, more flights and passengers could be impacted (as opposed to flights scheduled to leave throughout the day). Then again, alternative strategies are risky, too! Which one is the MOST risky? Well, different airlines have come to different conclusions. For more about flight scheduling, check out this fascinating video!
The price is… right?
Whoo-ey, flight pricing is complicated! I think the folks over at Wendover Productions do a great job breaking it down (I’m no expert, but I did corroborate their videos with other sources and articles)
- this video focuses on pricing economy/business/first class seats
- this video focuses on what flights COST airlines
- this video focuses on the pricing strategy for one flight (NYC-LAX) over 3 months
I’ll go out on a limb and guess that I’m the only one here who has spent hours watching youtube videos on pricing mechanisms, so I’ll summarize the major points here. According to Wendover, the overwhelming majority of airline $$ comes from first, business, and “premium economy” classes. Which is really interesting because it doesn’t really cost the airline more $$ to fly a first class person across the ocean (on the same flight as the rest of us!), however they’ve bamboozled people into paying up to 5x more for those seats. Other key factors are connecting flights, competition from other airlines, and whether or not “business travel” applies to the route (ie business PEOPLE not necessarily business class SEATS).
All of that aside, other sources say that airlines make very little $$ on flights and increasingly make their profit by selling frequent flyer miles and credit card deals. One other note of interest? Even though flights seem expensive to us, prices (normalized by inflation) have plummeted since the late 1970s.
Ok, so now that I’ve done a sh!t ton of research on airlines (and this post didn’t even cover topics like budget airlines, fuel cost, and de-regulation!), I think I owe you an explanation about why this post belongs on a blog about data and changemakers.
- The real reason this post is here is because I got tired of conjecture about airline philosophy, so I did a bunch of research!
- I think it’s a good idea for changemakers to understand airline basics because air travel is so linked to the politics, policies, and human rights questions surrounding im/migration, tourism and border crossing (not to mention capitalism!). For example, did you know that TSA fees (charged per one-way flight) have quadrupled from 2002-2017? (now a whopping $3.88 billion/year) despite TSA activities being notoriously (statistically) ineffective. (Yes, this is why we need good data!) I could write an entire other post about how air travel intersects with the US deportation machine. And US Customs and border patrol is pretty awful too…
- I have a lot of questions remaining about the first/business/economy seat breakdown and how that maps onto economic “class” in our society. The sources I looked at basically argued that without some people being willing to pay first/business class seats, no one would realistically be able to fly. Does that mean that the “market” has actually come up with an equitable pricing strategy – where people who can pay more generally do pay more, subsequently subsidizing air travel for the rest of us? Or is there more to the story than first meets the eye?
- The more research I did, the more justifications for capitalism I saw buried in the explanations of air travel. Competition? De-regulation? Market forces? Ding ding ding! “That’s just the way the world works!” I don’t really know enough to understand how airlines work under socialism or social democracy. It does seem like airlines have become so complicated that NO ONE really understands how it all works, lots of decisions are being made by computers, and they are very much approaching “too big to fail” – if they aren’t there already.
- In all of my research, I did come across some flight-booking tips for all y’all travelin’ changemakers! Here are the top 5 🙂
- Checking in as early as possible (even at home, the night before) and/or having a frequent flyer # (even if you don’t really keep track of it/ don’t have any loyalty to that airline) can make you less likely to be “bumped” if your flight is overbooked.
- Flight prices tend to go up significantly 2 weeks before take-off because most people who book flights at the last minute are business people (work is paying!) and they generally are willing to pay more (caveat: families making travel for funerals, births, injuries, or other un-plannable circumstances! – but airlines don’t take this into account).
- Tuesdays are generally the cheapest travel days.
- Sometimes there are uncommonly cheap flights available if you book your ticket in the middle of the night (if you happen to be awake anyway) because there are less people purchasing flights at that time.
- If you are stranded in Detroit, I wouldn’t recommend staying in the Days Inn or taking Valet Connection.