Do you find yourself frustrated by the trappings of modern travel? Does flying make you cranky? Brett Snyder, airline industry insider, addresses these issues every day on his blog, The Cranky Flier (www.crankyflier). For this week's podcast, Snyder joins host David Lytle to discuss some of the most annoying and most hopeful developments in the industry, including fuel surcharges, security, congestion pricing, customer service and new terminals.
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- "The Cranky Flier": Blog about the airline industry and issues that customers are facing.
- Plan Ahead: Many airports weren't originally set up to accommodate the new security requirements, so make sure you budget enough time to get through security and to check your baggage.
- Congestion Pricing Proposal: Airports would charge landing fees based on volume rather than weight of aircraft, charge more during period of congestion.
- Recent Trends: Airfares have been rather reasonable over the past few years. Because of increasing fuel costs, don't expect to see these prices forever.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi, this is David Lytle. I'm the editorial director at Frommers.com. Today we are talking with Bret Snyder. He is the writer behind the blog, "The Cranky Flier." Hi, Bret, how's it going?
Bret Snyder: Very good. Thanks for having me this morning.
David: Glad to have you. For people who don't know what the Cranky Flier is one, it's an immediately catchy name. Can you just give us a little background about what you write about?
Bret: Sure. It's, in a nutshell, it's my blog that I write primarily about the airline industry and I try and focus on issues that are more customer facing. So things that travelers would have to deal with. But from the perspective of someone who has worked in the industry.
David: Right. You worked for what, three airlines?
Bret: Well, I've worked for a hand full, some as internships, but the two major airlines I worked for as a full time jobs, I worked for American West airlines in the pricing department, and then I worked for United in marketing.
David: OK America West when it was still America West and not US Air.
Bret: Yeah, that was back in the days. I left there in 2002.
David: OK. Why the name "Cranky Flier?"
Bret: It's funny, actually. I was encouraged to start my blog by a couple of good friends of mine. I had sort of earned this nickname as being cranky from my friends; because I'll start talking about things and I'll just kind of get cranky talking about some of the things that go on. These are friends that just said, "Hey, you know way too much about this industry, you've got to start doing it." So they picked the name for me.
David: Well, you know, I think it's an appropriate name, not that I think that you have a cranky personality, but that it is a good match for what I think is really the underlying frustration that is modern travel.
David: Especially for those people who fly infrequently that may not even be familiar with the routine. It's seems just like an Orwellian maze to try and go through the airport.
Bret: It's certainly not an easy thing to deal with. Especially I think if you are flying somewhere nearby. The amount of time that it takes to get everything packed, make sure you have no liquids greater than three ounces, or 100 milliliters if you are going to Europe and then getting it all into the right size bags so that you can carry it on, or if you have to check in you have to get to the airport even earlier, worrying about security wait times. There are so many things that you have to worry about. It can be somewhat overwhelming.
David: Yeah. Reading through your blog over this week one the things that we have in common is we both spent out Christmases in Indianapolis.
David: Yeah. I'm originally from Indiana, my partner as well. When we were leaving early in the morning on Dec. 27, we had a 6:00 a.m. flight, so you can imagine what that's like, trying to leave the icy Midwest, trying to give yourself enough time to return your rental car and get through airport security. It turned out that this particular morning, it seemed like there were volleyball teams traveling everywhere out of Indianapolis to some sort of competition.
Bret: It's always something.
David: Yeah, it's always something. So we got there. We had about an hour that we were in the airport at 5:00 a.m. but it was just super packed. It's not built to accommodate this, although they have a nice display that they are planning on building a whole new wing to the airport.
David: I happen to have a clear pass. So I was able to go through security in about four minutes. I was on the plane waiting for my partner to get on the plane. They were closing the door when he was finally able to get through it. It took him an hour to get through security.
Bret: Oh, God. Yeah, that definitely can happen and it's amazing to me when I think of LAX, for instance. One of my home airports, right nearby.
Bret: Terminal one where Southwest, and now US Airways are, an extremely busy terminal, right? And if you look at the number of checkpoints that they have added since September 11, it's unbelievable. The lines have started coming down to some extent but there is just so much more involved now in getting it done. That it's insane.
David: Exactly. The security lines... basically it was one giant line that fed into a bottleneck. You couldn't see around the corner. The security line was actually bumping into the lines of people who were waiting to check in at the counters. So there was no rhyme or reason as to.... Some people didn't even know what line they were actually standing in, at a certain point.
Bret: You know I think that a lot of it is that the airports weren't designed for this type of setup, obviously. That includes, not just the security setup, but also ticket counter lines. Maybe now that you need to check liquids that are over three ozs., you have more people there.
They also weren't designed really to deal with the kiosks that most of the airlines are using now. It was really set up to, OK you go stand in line, check your bag, you go through security quickly, and you're on your way.
So I think Indianapolis is actually going to be an interesting place because they are building that brand new terminal there and they have all of these things in mind as they are building it. So it will be very interesting to see how that looks.
David: Yes, do you know just off the top of your head, other airports that are building new terminals or have had new terminals open since 9/11, since the 311 security measures have gone in, you know the three ounces, one quart bag, one bag per person? Have you gone through any of these airports to see if they are actually designed to accommodate traffic flow more efficiently?
Bret: I don't think anything I know of has opened since the 311 came into effect. And certainly nothing has opened that was designed with that in mind. Because that's only been, what, about a year and a half now.
I guess some of the newer terminals that I can think of in the US: they opened a new, basically a new airport in Fort Myers, I believe. I can double check on that, but there hasn't been much. We'll see Jet Blue's new terminal at JFK opening.
David: Yes, what's the date for that? I actually fly Jet Blue fairly regularly because it's my route from San Francisco to New York.
Bret: Oh, yes. Sure and I don't know what the date is on that but I have seen some pictures and it looks like it is coming along very nicely to the point where they even started hanging some of the jet ways. So I think it has to be coming, you know.... Sooner rather than later.
David: Yes, I've seen some construction pictures do like a Grid Skipper and Jaunt [inaudible] but haven't seen anything beyond that.
Bret: Yeah, I haven't seen anything.
David: Well, while we're talking about the security though and just sort of my personal frustration with it. Are they doing anything right with airport security right now?
Bret: Are they doing anything right? [laughs] I mean, I guess that's a matter of...
David: Yes that might be a loaded question. Sorry, that's obviously front loaded there.
Bret: Sure. Ideally if they are going something right then I wouldn't know about it and that's how it should be, right? They should be doing these things behind the scenes, where they are not actually bothering people at the airport. Because the airport is effectively the last line of defense, right?
Bret: If somebody really wants to figure out a way to do something, they're going to pay attention to what the rules are. They are going to find a way around it. I would not expect to see someone try to walk through a metal detector with a bomb strapped to their chest.
Then again, I guess I wouldn't have expected someone to put it in their shoe either, but at the time no one was really thinking about that when Richard Reid did that. So this is kind of a last line of defense. You know, just catch people.
What I would love to see and what should be happening is that behind the scenes they are doing this work. I wrote a post about this maybe a couple of weeks ago now. It may be even a month ago now. About the type of data they could be using to do this and a lot of it just resides in the reservation, in the passenger name record.
David: Right. That's why something like a registered travel program works because there is pre-screening. Is that what you're are saying?
Bret: Yeah, I mean, the registered travel program is certainly a good component of that, if you can identify someone as being a trusted traveler. The only problem with that of course is that you could find someone to go through the process if you have time. If you wanted to get around security, you could have someone that spends 10 years getting into this process. That's the ultimate goal. There is always a route around everything, right. It is just a matter of staying ahead of them, but also doing things behind the scenes, so you can help figure out what is going on.
David: Right, right. It is a particular peeve of mine that the one-to-one screening happens to get on an airplane to me doesn't really seem to offer any resolution for the problem. I mean checking everybody's shoes at this point is a reaction to something that happened in the past one time.
Bret: Right. And if you saw some guy trying to light a shoe on fire right now, he will be tackled in five seconds on the plane.
David: Right, exactly. And you know, some reports have said that the bomb never would have gone off in the first place that he was somebody who had issues to begin with, and it wasn't a well-constructed device that would not have gone off. It is the same idea with the liquids going on board is that it would have been impossible for them to actually construct a bomb on the plane.
Bret: There is no movement to have that change at all which is really unfortunate. It is one of those things, but more difficult you make to travel, then the less people are going to travel if they can avoid it, which is sad.
David: Right, exactly. Let's talk about a couple of other things too that are going on I think that are big deals in the airline industry right now. One is fuel surcharges; the other is the idea for congestion pricing. Let us start with congestion pricing, can you sort of break that down, how that works right now and what proposals are there?
Bret: Sure. I actually just wrote a long post on this earlier this weekend. I have been getting into a pretty vigorous debate with a lot of the people that comment on the blog.
David: Yeah. They have been very active, that I love too is that you have a loyal and vocal readership.
Bret: Yeah, that's the best part. I mean somethings like congestion pricing, these are not simple solutions, right? If they were, then they wouldn't need people like me to comment on it. They didn't know what to do. For things like this, it is sort of all over the place, but the proposal they came out recently. There is sort of a three-pronged proposal.
And the first part is -- it is actually not a change in wording -- it is just sort of a clarification. And it says that landing fees right now for the most part - let me backup a little. When an airplane lands at an airport and uses the facilities, they usually get charged a landing fee for that operation.
And right now that tends to be based on weight of the aircraft. So obviously bigger aircrafts pay more. So one thing is paying here is that it is clarifying the fact that you don't need the charge on weight if you are an airport. You can also have a component that is based on the actual operation itself, so that it doesn't matter the size of the plane, it would just be an operation fee.
David: So they use more by volume rather than weight?
Bret: It would be more by volume, which the argument is that it is using the same amount of runaway and so it is taking up the same amount of space in terms of an operation as it doesn't matter what the size of the airplane is.
David: So this would include smaller jets and...
Bret: Right, so 747 and a 50-seat regional jet could have the same component that is just based on a single operation. It would be a hybrid of that end is weight based because they are saying it would make it more fair. The idea with that is that if the rates get higher on the regional jets, it is going to end up being too expensive, probably to keep those as profitable, although with fuel as it is right now, it's almost impossible to keep them profitable anyway [laughs] it seems.
Bret: But, so that's the idea behind that sort of pricing would be sort of discourage the smaller jets and encourage people to use larger jets, or airlines to use larger jets on the rise. That's one piece.
The second piece which is sort of the meat of the congestion pricing proposal is that airports that are considered congested would be able to charge more during periods of congestion, as opposed to off-peak periods. The sort of bind that they get into here is that, there's still this belief that, and I have the quote here that, "Reasonable fees must be based on the capital and operating costs of the facilities to which the fees are assessed."
So basically it's still cost based. It has nothing to do with demand, so they can't set the landing fees at a level where supply equals demand. They still have to base it on the cost of actually operating at the airport.
Bret: And so because of that it's going to be less expensive than the market probably should bear. And so you'll still have congestion under this proposal.
But what they're saying here is-right now you're only allowed to include in landing fees facilities that are in use to determine the cost of the airport. And what this is saying is it would allow airports to start including the cost of construction of new facilities into the landing fees before they're completed.
David: Which would be adding the cost in for future facilities that should be there to help alleviate some of that congestion.
Bret: Yeah, I guess that's the thought. There are actually two suggestions on this. One is that they'd be allowed to spread it throughout the day, so that doesn't do anything for congestion pricing. But then another part says you'd only be able to charge for these facilities during peak times.
Bret: So you would effectively have this congestion pricing, where you have the regular landing fees that apply for existing facilities throughout the day, and then during the peak times you could also charge for facilities that are under construction.
David: OK, so, if something like this went into effect, this would be a cost that would be spread out per passenger on any individual flight? So it would be a cost increase that you would see in an airfare as well?
Bret: Well, it wouldn't necessarily be per passenger; it would just get lumped into the landing fees, which as we just talked about could either be weight based or a combination of weight and per operation. So it would just end up being a higher price per operation. Of course, when the airlines look at that, there's going to be a cost for that whole flight, well people buying tickets, of course they're going to try and pass through that cost to people.
David: Right, exactly. Do you think that this would appear then as a separate new fee or surcharge that would be on an airfare, or would it just be rolled into a base fare? And it would be invisible to a passenger?
Bret: Well, you know, it's tough to say. I mean, I personally find fuel surcharges to be maddening. I'd rather just say, "Here's the base fare. Here's your fare." Fine, I understand fuel is in there.
David: But it's easier for the consumer to see what's going on, or I guess it's not easier for them to see. It's easier for them to swallow if they're just given a base fare and then you pay a tax.
Bret: I don't know, I mean I guess there are some people that think that way. For me it doesn't really matter; it's more of a logistics thing, right. Because if you're on any of these online booking sites, whether it's a meta-search site or an online travel agent, they're generally showing you the final price you're going to pay,
Bret: Doesn't matter if it goes in as a fuel surcharge or not. You're just going to see here's what I have to pay. So the surcharges, it's just kind of behind the scenes for I think most people that are looking at flights.
Bret: So but the idea is, yes, you would see this as probably to be determined by what the airlines could get pushed through. I would think it would have to be in the base fare, or they could potentially throw it in a fuel surcharge. I don't really know actually [laughs] how they do it.
David: OK, no that's fine. Look, where do the airlines stand on something like this congestion pricing proposal?
Bret: They don't like it, the ones that I've seen, at least, that have come out with a stance against this. I mean, if you think about it, anything that increases their costs, they're not going to be in favor of.
Bret: They're pretty much standing the line that "We need to increase capacity," which is absolutely true. The only problem is that doesn't happen overnight.
David: Right. That's very long-term.
Bret: Yeah, it's certainly longer-term. The way that I look at it is very long-term is building a runway or something like that, right? That takes quite a while to get approved, through all the different environmental impact reports and all these things. Mid-term, it's potentially easier if you can find a way to redesign the airspace. I know the FAA has recently done some work in the Northeast on that. If there's a way where you can squeeze more capacity out of your existing runways, then that's sort of a mid-term approach.
But in the short-term, I think it's a pretty safe bet. You either have higher landing fees in the form of congestion pricing, which will discourage airlines from flying as many flights, or you have airport caps on the number of flights that can operate, and then they build out who gets to fly.
Bret: It's sort of what you have in Chicago at O'Hare. That's more of a softer program, but United and American agreed they'd cap their flights to reduce congestion there.
David: Yeah. And that was a few years ago, though. That wasn't a recent development, right?
Bret: It's not a recent development, no. That happened a few years back.
David: Because O'Hare was notoriously the worst airport for a while, and I thought it was that agreement that sort of helped the congestion there. And now everybody's sort of looking at Atlanta and JFK and Newark as some of the worst airports.
Bret: The New York airports are the worst. Atlanta's actually not as bad right now. They just opened a new runway there.
David: That helped...
Bret: New York is certainly the biggest stress point in the system right now.
David: Right. And before we have to go, actually, there's a lot I would love to talk about. Let's talk a little bit about fuel surcharges and pricing, in general. Consumers, as more Americans are traveling, as more people in general are traveling around the world, prices seem, really, to have stayed really reasonable. In fact, that doesn't seem like they've risen with the market. You can still find pretty cheap airfares to most places. Would you say that it's sort of unreasonable that passengers expect these fares to remain this low?
Bret: Oh yeah, definitely. If you look at the fuel costs, they've more than doubled in the last few years for the airlines. And it's such a huge piece of their cost structure that it's unbelievable that they're even able to have profitable quarters at this point, considering some of the sale fares that are out there that you'll see fairly often.
Bret: It's a benefit of a stronger economy that we have had that keeps people flying and paying some higher fares, at least, beyond just the sale fares that are out there. But as the economy weakens, assuming that's the direction we're heading--I'm certainly not an economist, but if that's the direction we're heading, I think it's going to be more difficult for them, because they're going to be squeezed to fill those seats, and yet they're also going to need to raise fares to keep up with the increase in fuel costs.
David: Right. Well, I mean, that's why you see them trying to squeeze out any bit of savings they can, by charging for a horrible sandwich, or just removing almost any sort of customer service that might happen, either in the airport or on your flight.
Bret: Yeah. There's always been too much of a focus, I would say, in the industry on costs. I mean, it's always important to keep your costs down, but that should just be sort of your ongoing business. That's how you should be running your business in general is keeping your costs down.
But there needs to be more of a focus on ways to improve revenue. And that's what we've seen over the last couple of years is by charging, a lot of people would say nickel and diming, for sandwiches.
Bret: There's always the joke: charging you to go to the bathroom next. Fine, whatever.
David: Right. Yeah, I'm waiting for the quarter slot on the door.
Bret: Yeah. Well, that was in the Alaska Airlines commercial, which sounded so funny back in the day, and now I'm actually half-expecting it.
Bret: But personally, I like the idea of breaking things down like that, but I like it in more of a: you can do it in advance. And so, I think, if you look at Air Canada, they're an airline that's done that really well, where, when you go on their website, you get a menu, effectively, of what you'd like. You pick your fare. Are you going to check bags? Do you want to buy a meal? You just do it all in advance, it charges you at the time you book it, and then you know what you're getting when you're on the plane.
I hate having to whip my credit card out. Oh, OK. Swipe it for the TV, swipe it for sandwich, whatever it might be.
David: Right, exactly. Or digging around for exact change if you're getting a drink on the flight, or anything that's not free or complimentary.
Bret: Yeah. I mean, some airlines rely on this as their bread and butter. It's what Ryanair has done so well over in Europe. And you see guys like Skybus. And really, Spirit was the one, I guess, that made the change to that in the first place, by saying, "Here. We're going to get you there, we're going to give you a seat, and anything else you're going to have to pay for."
Bret: And for some people, that's fine. If you're really just looking for the lowest price, then that's probably going to be a good way to go. And that's the thing about air travel, right? It's just whatever people want, they can probably find it. There are lots of different options out there.
David: Right. I think the problem is that, especially for the infrequent traveler, those options are confusing.
Bret: Oh yeah.
David: They don't know the differences between carriers, or even aircraft-type seating arrangements, whether there's a meal or not involved, if they have to pay for a cup of coffee. And it does make flying a daunting part of their vacation or their travel.
Bret: No, I would agree completely. So, my day job, I work for PriceGrabber.com...
Bret: And we had started a meta-search site, and we had included things in there like seat pitch and other information, that it may be something that is a little more expensive, but hey, maybe you're going to get better legroom on the plane, things that you don't usually see in the booking process.
Bret: Unfortunately, we actually ended up shutting the travel site down, for a variety of reasons, but I'm hoping that some other sites will start moving more toward that way, to get away from just being price, and getting more into other amenities.
David: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It is the idea that if you do have the information available, it is in the consumer's best interest. It's in the best interest of the business as well, because it removes some of the customer's right to complain, if you can say, "We did provide all this information for you and explained what it meant."
Bret: Yeah. The thing that Southwest has done best is they generally under-promise and over-deliver, right?
David: Right. [laughs]
Bret: If the airlines can set expectations better, then everybody will probably be better off.
David: Right. Lower the bar.
Bret: Yes. [laughs] Unfortunately, that's what it seems we've come to. [laughs]
David: Yeah, exactly. Well, Bret, I want to say thanks for talking with me today. I've really enjoyed this conversation.
Bret: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
David: No problem. And for listeners out there, you can send an email about this podcast to email@example.com, or you can send one to Bret at crankyflier.com. And your email is firstname.lastname@example.org?
Bret: Yeah, that's right.
David: Great. Thanks a lot, and have a great trip in Vegas that you're about to leave for.
Bret: Thanks very much.
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