Brett Snyder is the founder and host — “Chief Airline Dork,” in his words — of Cranky Flier, one of the Web’s most popular air travel sites. Like me, Snyder grew up a jetliner buff, plane-spotting and collecting airline timetables. Though we embarked on different career paths, our affections for commercial aviation have similar roots, and both of us eventually turned our passion into a writing and blogging gig.
Q: Some background on yourself. Where did your interest in this mad business come from?
I wish I knew. For some insane reason, I started to love this business when I was a little kid. Nobody in my family was in the industry, but there I was running from terminal to terminal at LAX picking up timetables. My grandma even took me to the Sheraton Plaza La Reina (now Sheraton Gateway) at LAX for my birthday, got me a room, and let me watch airplanes all day. I ended up becoming a travel agent when I was 12, and I volunteered at Travelers Aid at LAX during high school. I’ve just always loved this industry.
Q: Give us a the history behind Cranky Flier. Why and when did you decide to start the site?
I had left United Airlines in 2005 and went to work for PriceGrabber.com. I was starting their travel search site, and we had discussion forums in every category. We were pretty small when we started, so I began to seed the discussion forums with topics. Some friends of mine saw it and told me that all this random knowledge I had would probably be interesting to others, but not in the context of a discussion forum. They pushed me to start the blog and, in August 2006 it went live.
Q: We often hear of the “golden age of air travel.” It’s my opinion this age is mostly one of myth. The obvious hassles of flying aside, air travel in 2013 is remarkably affordable, astonishingly safe, and for the most part reliable. If ever there was a “golden age” of flying, I’d say it was right now. Yet people utterly despise the experience. Never before has there been so much contempt for airlines and for flying in general (to wit, the very name of your website seems to capitalize on this sentiment). What are your thoughts on where this contempt comes from, and what the industry might do about it?
First, I think a lot of people misunderstand the name of my website. I’m not cranky about the flying experience. If I’m cranky about anything (and I am), it’s at the lack of understanding about how the airline industry works and the poor media coverage the industry receives. I agree completely about the golden age. People think of big seats with people dressed in suits eating fancy meals. But they don’t remember that the trip on that old propeller plane took forever, bouncing around in weather. And, the tickets were so expensive that very few people could afford them. Of course, if people want that experience, they can still get it in business or first class — and the seat today will be much nicer and the ride much smoother.
I think it’s very tough for the industry to combat this, but I would like to think that with fewer, smarter airlines, we’ll see more stability. More stability means, in particular, more stable jobs for employees, and that should mean happier people providing better customer service. Where people really get pissed off is when things go wrong — i.e. delays, cancellations, etc. So if the airlines can first invest more in reducing delays and cancellations (as we’ve seen with both Delta and US Airways of late), that will help. Then invest further in making service recovery easier.
Q: Many people — younger people especially — seem to feel that flying is expensive. Yet fares are about half of what they were 30 years ago. We’ve seen a small increase in average ticket prices over the past two or three years, but they’re still about 15 percent cheaper than they were in 2000. All this despite tremendous increases in the costs of fuel. How has the industry managed to pull this off?
Airlines have become much better at revenue management, and have continued to increase load factors [percentage of seats occupied] to help bring and keep fares down. The creation of a la carte pricing models has helped even more. Even with fuel prices going through the roof, airlines have become so much more efficient that prices have remained remarkably low. It’s incredible, actually, and nobody appreciates it. They just get angry. If people realize what it cost to fly back in 1970, they might be shocked. But nobody thinks that far back.
Q: Let’s talk about those a la carte “unbundling” fees for a minute. I realize that people feel nickel-and-dimed by these fees, but I’m of the mind that they’re mostly a good idea, in that people can pay for certain perks they might want, while other don’t have to, thus keeping overall fares lower for everybody. After all, these things were never “free.” They were included in the price of your ticket, and the price used to be a lot higher.
Absolutely. Look at Southwest. It often no longer has the lowest fares, and that’s because every fare includes two checked bags and the ability to change without a penalty. If I need to check two bags, Southwest will probably be cheaper. But for those of us who don’t, why would I pay the higher fare on Southwest when I could save money on another airline? I love the ability to pick and choose what I want, but I think the airlines were in such a hurry to roll it out when they were drowning in red ink in 2008 that they failed to present the idea correctly. And now they’re suffering because of how people perceive these fees.
Q: Though at some point, I suppose, the concept is bound to get sleazy. For example, carriers charging for both carry-on and checked bags. That’s gouging.
The one that really gets me is the “passenger usage charge,” or whatever those ultra low-cost carriers (for example Spirit or Allegiant) call it. The one where you pay more to book online because it’s convenient.
Q: The government has filed a lawsuit to stop the American / US Airways merger. Their case hinges on the idea of a merger meaning less competition and higher fares. But can’t we argue that fares are already artificially rock-bottom, and airlines have, to some degree, been riding on the backs of labor to keep them so low? And isn’t this merger ultimately in the best interest of the industry and passengers?
I don’t know that I’d say fares are artificially at rock bottom. I mean, sure, labor is taking a lot less of the pie today than they were before all those bankruptcies, but that was going to happen no matter what. If bankruptcy wasn’t allowed, those firms would have just failed and new airlines would have started up with the new lower wage rates. US Airways’ rates today are “artificially low” for the pilots because the pilots can’t agree on a seniority list integration, and the company is stuck between a rock and a hard place. But the merger with American should fix that, despite what others seem to think.
I do think this merger would be good for passengers and of course for the industry as well. I write a lot about this on the blog from an industry perspective, but I don’t talk about it from my perspective as a passenger… I live in Long Beach and fly from Long Beach Airport when I can. If JetBlue doesn’t fly nonstop, then I’m pretty much left with US Airways. I like flying US Airways — flights are on time usually and the experience is fine. But in the merger, I would expect that Long Beach at least keeps service and maybe grows it. I would also expect more options and amenities on the new combined carrier — things like extra legroom seats, and so on. And the new American would be able to take me to a lot more places that I can’t reach today without changing airlines. Will fares rise? Maybe, but there are a million different factors that go into fare changes that I think it would be extremely difficult to tie that specifically to this or any merger. And if fares get too high, that creates opportunity for others to come in and shake things up.
Q: Flying has changed quite a bit in the years since 9/11. What, aside from lower fares, in your opinion, has gotten better from the passenger’s perspective?
I think the most important thing that has improved is airline reliability. You see most airlines posting solid performance numbers (with a few exceptions), and that should be the most important thing. Domestically, I also point to the ubiquity of new amenities and options, such as enhanced economy seating with extra legroom. That’s great for people who want to pay more to get more. And I have to mention Wi-Fi. It’s amazing how fast a flight passes when you’re online. I just used it on American from London to LAX, and it was awesome.
Q: And what has gotten worse?
Airport security. My number one pet peeve is that stupid liquid rule. They’ve had years to come up with a less cumbersome alternative, and they’ve failed. Security in general is more annoying, but that’s the one thing that bugs me most. I also think things have gotten much worse if you fly out of a very small city. High fuel prices mean the smallest markets will suffer the most, and government programs like EAS [Essential Air Service] aren’t going to save them. It’s a shame that there isn’t a better way to make service work in small cities, but so far the options are limited. Allegiant Air has been great for some small cities, but that doesn’t connect them into the national airline system; it just gets people to a sun spot. That’s good, for sure, but I wish small cities could get greater access to the world. I don’t know how to solve that problem.
Q: Have the airlines given TSA a free ride? Why has there not been more industry opposition to a security system that is largely irrational and ineffective?
I don’t know if I’d say it’s a free ride. There are some battles worth fighting more than others, and I just don’t know if this one is winnable. There are plenty of ways to poke holes in the airport security system, but nobody is willing to put their neck out on the line and say that certain measures needs to go away. I do think the TSA under the current regime has at least made a little progress with things like Pre-Check. It’s the little victories…
Q: The growth and global ambitions of carriers like Emirates and Turkish Airlines is underscoring many of the failures of US commercial aviation. Governments overseas seem to have a much better understanding of how important commercial aviation is to their economies, while our own government seems intent on strangling the life out of the airline industry through taxes and a completely dysfunctional airport security apparatus.
Well if you think the US is bad, look at Europe. Great Britain is the worst government I can imagine in terms of supporting air travel. They view it as an environmental burden and not as the huge economic engine it is. Thanks to geography, Europe is going to lose its relevance to the Gulf carriers a lot more quickly than the US will. You already see a ton of people in smaller European cities like Birmingham or Hamburg be able to reach Africa and Asia with a single stop in Dubai. They can bypass all those European hubs, and the European carriers can do very little about it because of how unhelpful their governments are.
Q: In a recent poll, twenty percent of foreign travelers who recently visited the United States said they would not do so again due to onerous entry procedures at airports, including long processing lines. Forty-three percent said they would discourage others from visiting the United States.
I’m not surprised to hear them say that, but I’m skeptical as to how many of them will actually follow through. There are, however, a ton of people who cannot come to the US because of our visa issues, and that’s a much bigger problem. China, for instance, is a huge potential source of tourism that is hamstrung by visa and bureaucratic issues.
Q: One of the things I commonly talk about is how American airports simply do not recognize the “in transit” concept. All passengers arriving from overseas, even if they’re merely transiting to a third country, are forced to clear customs and immigration, re-check their luggage, pass through TSA screening, etc. It’s an enormous hassle that you don’t find in most places overseas, where transit passengers walk from one gate to the next with a minimum of fuss. This must cost US airlines millions of potential customers each year. Granted it’s partly an airport design issue, but why don’t carriers seem to care?
I’m not sure it’s an airline issue. I always thought it was part of the “guilty at first glance” attitude in Customs and TSA. It’s truly a shame that we can’t do a better job with transit because it would help to support many more flights to and from the US.
Q: The Asiana Airlines crash at SFO last summer was a real media circus — a gigantic story for a comparatively small-scale accident. Large-scale catastrophes have become quite rare, and it seems that people seem to have lost all sense of scale and perspective when it comes to air safety. Think about it for a minute: If that 777 had flipped over, and 250 people had been killed instead of three people, how would the media coverage have differed? I tend to think it wouldn’t have differed, which is a little disturbing.
I think you’re probably right, but at least that was an actual accident! How many times have you seen “breaking news” about an airplane that landed with its nose gear up, or even sillier, an airplane that had to return to the airport because of a mechanical issue? Nearly every time this ends without incident, but the coverage is still insane. The media definitely has an unhealthy fascination with this industry.
Q: Lastly, I can’t help asking: the new American Airlines livery?
Not a fan. I don’t like how the eagle has been marginalized, and I don’t like the big flag-waving tail. And the “silver” body is really just gray. But most aggravating to me is that I understand it’s significantly more expensive to paint this livery due to the colors and complexity. What a waste of money.