Why Planes Stopped Flying Half Full

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Airplanes may be a marvel of modern engineering,
but unless you’re flying first-class it isn’t what most people would call glamorous. For many, the biggest problem is how crowded
airliners can get. But believe it or not, there was a time when
flights rarely left more than half full. How was this possible? I think it all depends on your optimism; I
mean– is your jetplane half-full or half empty… Anyway, our story begins long ago in the Aquarian
age known as the 1970s. It was a time when the lands were overrun
by roving pairs of bellbottom jeans. Ooh, and let’s not forget the platform shoes! In this mythic era of flared denim, air travel
was strictly controlled by the federal government. The Federal Aviation Administration, the government
body that regulates air travel in the US, had complete authority over what routes airlines
were able to fly. The FAA also had the power to control the
ticket prices and other fees airlines charged their customers. The only area where airlines had nearly complete
autonomy was in how many flights could depart on each route per day. With no way of expanding their reach or competing
on pricing, airlines needed to find another way to stand out from the crowd. The solution they all came to was accessibility. It might be hard to believe in a world where
you must book your flight months in advance, but there was a time when you could simply
drive to the airport on a whim and go almost anywhere you wanted. Did you still manage to miss your flight? Don’t worry, because you could simply trade
your ticket in for another at no additional fee. What? And don’t forget, when you got on your plane,
half the seats would be empty. If you were lucky, you might even get the
whole row to yourself. Just imagine: no more people squeezing past
you, elbowing you in the side. Think about that the next time you’re stuck
between two snoring passengers as an eight-year-old river dances on the back of your seat. Now, it’s hard to make unlimited legroom sound
bad, but all that extra space came at a price, and I mean that literally. While airline fees seem to be getting higher
and higher, that’s’ not the case when you adjust for inflation. The average price of airfare in 1979 was about
$600 in today’s money. Compare that to 2015, when the average price
was only about three hundred and eighty-five dollars. Now, those figures only look at ticket prices,
not additional costs like baggage fees, but that’s still a difference of more than two
hundred dollars per seat. It turns out that all these extra flights
were cutting into the airline’s bottom line, and they were passing that markup on to you. Personally, I think shelling out a little
extra moola is a fair trade for some elbow room, but that’s just me. I suppose if you really wanted an increase
in airline real estate, you could pay extra for a first-class ticket, but more than doubling
your airfare might be a little too extreme. What do you think? Let me know in the comments if you prefer
the cheap seat in coach, or if the extra legroom is worth the added cost of a first-class ticket. And if you’re going first class, you want
to bring along a friend…me? Two things brought an end to these halcyon
days of ample knee space. The first came in the form of relaxed FAA
regulations. While modern air travel isn’t exactly the
wild west, from 1978 on, airlines had much more freedom in how they operate. Free from price controls and restricted routes,
costs fell as airlines struggled to undercut each other’s prices. These effects weren’t felt immediately, only
one or two percent every year. Still, these discounts started to add up over
time. Unfortunately, planes are just as expensive
to operate as they’d been before the deregulation. Lower prices came at the cost of being packed
in like sardines. The second significant change was a technological
one. In the analog world of the 1970s, there wasn’t
a whole lot companies could do to adjust prices on the fly. Sure, when you bought your ticket might affect
the costs, and flying first class was obviously more expensive, but a seat in coach was a
seat in coach as far as airfare was concerned. This is no longer true due to one thing, the
algorithm. Hum, there was supposed to be some lighting
and dramatic music when I said that. Let me try again. The Algorithm! Modern airlines have entire departments dedicated
to writing the code that goes into determining the price of an individual seat. From just a few pricing categories, airlines
now offer dozens, and the fees are constantly changing to ensure the maximum possible booking
on every flight. Airlines have also taken to adding more seats
to each plane and regularly selling more tickets than they have seats. The idea behind deliberate overbooking is
that a certain percentage of passengers are going to miss their flight or cancel last
minute. That leaves them with empty, unprofitable
seats. By overbooking, they guarantee that planes
take off with as close to a full load as possible. The side effect is that sometimes more people
show up than expected, and someone ends up getting left behind. How many of us have wound up stranded at the
terminal due to overbooking? Even long-distance overnighters seem to draw
a pretty big crowd. Overcrowding isn’t the only reason some
people might be nostalgic for a previous era of commercial aviation. Seats have been steadily getting smaller to
cram more and more passengers into the same space. Meanwhile, extra fees have been getting larger
and more numerous. Prior to 2008, no major airline charged passage
for the first checked bag. When American Airlines first began charging
a fifteen-dollar fee for the first checked bag, people thought they’d lost their minds. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find an airline
that doesn’t. Airlines can get away with this in large part
because of how few of them are left. In the year 2000, the United States was home
to ten major airlines, a number that has been slowly whittled down to just four by 2017. With these four dominating well over eighty
percent of the market, there aren’t many places for customers to turn. Sure, there are plenty of regional airlines
good for short hops from city to city, but if you’re looking to fly cross country or
internationally, options are limited. Depending on where you are and where you’re
going, you might not even have a choice at all. Still, there’s one bright spot to modern
air travel that I haven’t touched on yet, and that’s the environmental impact. All those extra flights that airlines used
to schedule burned a lot of jet fuel. While the 70s may have been an excellent time
for airline customers, all those extra flights weren’t exactly healthy for the environment. While Peter Piper is packing more passengers
into fewer planes might not be what anyone calls a good time, it had the unintended but
one-hundred percent positive side effect of reducing the pollution airlines produce. That’s terrible news for any Captain Planet
villains in the audience, but great news for pretty much everyone else. Boy, that’s a dated reference, isn’t it? Well come to think of it, so am I. Now, we probably shouldn’t give these big
corporations too much credit for going green by accident and in a way that makes them more
money. It doesn’t really excuse or even explain everything
else airlines do in the name of the bottom line. Still, it’s something, and who doesn’t like
ending on a happy note? I like B flat myself… And hey, if you learned something new today,
then give the video a like and share it with a friend! And here are some other cool videos I think
you’ll enjoy. Just click to the left or right, and stay
on the Bright Side of life!

 

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