While planning an upcoming trip, I began to reminisce about air travel and how it has changed through my life. I first flew back in 1997 or 1998. At that time the price of a barrel of oil was around $20 and even dropped below that at times. Flights were cheap. In fact flights were cheap through the first few years of the new century as well. Does anyone remember the $99 round-trip deals to Las Vegas that flew out of Madison (and a couple other cities as well). It is rare to see anything like that nowadays except for special one way deals that pop-up once in a while.
Another hallmark of that time period was less-than-full planes. Most of the flights I was on were only 60% to maybe 80% full. There were a few times when I was on the small jet from Chicago or Minneapolis to CWA and there were 10 or less people on board. Does anyone remember those days when it wasn’t that difficult to shuffle around the plane and trade seats with other people in order to have a row by yourself? Nowadays the planes (small and large) are almost always full. The planes are so full that I almost always get asked if I would be willing to give up my seat if needed. The airlines will of course offer you a little compensation for giving up your seat, which is nice, but I usually don’t have that much flexibility in my schedule. It was also easier to book flights at the times you wanted back a few years ago. There were more planes in the sky and more flights per day.
Now, air travel is more expensive (the tickets are expensive and there are also steep baggage fees), there are less options, and you are guaranteed to be cramped in a full plane, (there is also more onerous security to pass through). What happened? The rising price of oil caused the airlines to deal with economic reality. As I mentioned yesterday in the Peak Oil update, it looks like the price of oil will remain much higher than historical norms (and maybe rise even higher) for the foreseeable future. If you are day-dreaming about the good old days of air travel, don’t get your hopes up. The reality is that there is not much to be done about the physics of flying. Airplanes require a certain amount of fuel to travel a certain distance. This amount has not changed a lot since the advent of commercial air travel and is not likely to change much in the future. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the best development in the past 20 years and it will only shave maybe 20% of the fuel costs off of a typical flight. It is supposed to have more room for seating and be a little quieter than most aircraft. These are all great things, and I can’t wait to fly in one someday in the near future, but the Dreamliner will not bring us back to the days of half empty planes and round-trip tickets for less than $200. (As an aside, Southwest has done a superb job squeezing more efficiency out of their operations and continue to offer very good rates even though the price of oil has risen. I would fly Southwest all the time if they flew out of CWA).
So I am a bit sad thinking about the old days, but the positive thing about the change is that the airline industry is more efficient. We are moving more people per gallon of jet fuel than we did 10 or 15 years ago. The vast number of flights and half-empty planes really represented a wasteful operation. That seemed fine when the price of oil was ridiculously low, but the airlines (and customers) added a lot of unnecessary pollution to the atmosphere. So get used to stuffed planes and limited options. Or, if you have the entrepreneurial mindset, figure out a way to fly fast and cheap. There is a big market to conquer.
Have a nice Wednesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew
This post was written by jloew on December 12, 2012