Air travel: The best or worst of times?
By Chris McGinnis
Special to CNN.com
(CNN) -- Airline bashing and complaining are now a national pastime, especially during the peak summer travel season.
Mix together overcrowded flights, airline bankruptcies, TSA hassles and add a dash of thunder and lightning, and you've got hours of cocktail party prattle. Everyone's got a story of misery and mayhem that can outdo anyone else's.
But you know what? While it's far from perfect, the air travel experience is vastly improved from just a few years ago. Here's what I mean:
With airfares at all-time lows, complaints about high airfares are getting mighty tedious. I'm frequently flabbergasted to get e-mails from readers asking whether to take the $200 coast-to-coast round trip offer or wait for something better. (Take it!) Back in 1980 when airlines were freshly deregulated, who could have imagined that we'd ever see the day when you could fly from coast to coast for just $99 each way? Or between New York City and Florida for about $80 each way? I know that there are still plenty of markets where oligopolistic major carriers overcharge, but the great majority of Americans now has access to some of the lowest fares ever.
Remember when making a reservation meant calling and waiting on hold for a travel agent or airline reservationist? Not only that, but you had to wait for your red carbon-paper ticket to be mailed or delivered to you before you could leave for the airport. Before the mid-'90s, being able to run to the computer and make a quick and easy online booking was not an option. Back then, there was no such thing as an electronic ticket, or an airline ticket kiosk -- everyone had to call in for a reservation; everyone had to stand in a line to check in. These days, all you need to get through the airport is your photo ID. That's a vast improvement over the old system.
OK, OK, so you have to pay for it. But have you noticed how good the meals have become now that the free market reigns? Choices on the plane are varied and the food is much fresher and tastier. And if you don't want to buy your food on the plane, what you can pick up on most concourses is far superior to the dried out pizza wedges or wizened wieners that used to dominate airport fare. Bon appetit!
Have you seen the new hand-held wireless credit card readers that flight attendants have been using? Fantastic! No more flight attendant pleas for exact change. No more handing over a $20 bill for a $4 beer and waiting for change. Now, payment with a credit card is a cinch -- and some airlines won't accept cash at all anymore.
These days, planes are getting smaller, but flights are becoming more frequent. That means more choices in terms of when you want to fly. For business travelers, this makes day trips possible -- those that start off with an early flight out, all day doing business in another city, then back at home (and not in some beige hotel) at night. What a luxury!
Remember when the only flights that showed movies were those headed across an ocean? These days, there's a video screen on nearly every plane ceiling or seatback showing news, sports, comedies or movies -- and most of the time, it's free. This year, some airlines are adding high-speed Internet access -- the emerging standard for in-flight entertainment -- and charging $10 to $30 for inflight access.
Better on-time performance
Remember the summer of 2000? That was when the nation's air traffic system approached meltdown. On-time performance became so bad that the federal government threatened to take action against the airlines that had packed too many planes into too few slots. Much of the problem was resolved by the travel decline in the wake of September 11, which forced the airlines to cut excess flights and park planes in the desert. But now that travel volume is coming back, the airlines have spread arrivals and departures more evenly. At bottlenecks like Chicago-O'Hare, the FAA has required airlines to cut flights. The whole system seems to be working better, and we've been enjoying some of the best on-time performance in recent memory.
Perhaps due to the intense scrutiny of our air travel system since 9/11, there has not been a single large jet crash in the United States in nearly three years. The last large jet crash occurred in November 2001 when an American Airlines Airbus crashed shortly after take off from New York-JFK en route to the Dominican Republic.
So sit back, relax and enjoy your next flight. Focus on how much better things are these days.