Is the aviation experience in the United States so incredibly bad that the carriers have simply given up trying to compete with foreign carriers? Listening to a piece on HuffPo live titled "Can We Fix The Airlines?" yesterday evening that was the general feeling being bandied about. And after listening I couldn’t help but be even more frustrated at not being able to participate (I was invited) than when I had to turn down the initial invitation. If only to correct some of the glaring inaccuracies in the information being shared. Alas, it was not to be. And so I’m here, typing away instead.
To be fair, flying in coach domestically is rarely a great experience. But it really isn’t all that much more glorious on regional flights in Asia or Europe. You’re still on a narrow-body plane with 30-32" pitch. Some carriers have snacks and drinks; some do not. Some have IFE and some do not. Some flights are delayed or canceled and some are not. Just like flying in the USA. And even the "business class" experience in those areas isn’t all fun and games. In Asia there are plenty of narrow-body aircraft flying routes of a few hours or so. Food & beverage is better but the seats are generally similar to those on US carriers. In Europe it is the same on the meals but the seats are rather worse. Economy seats with a blocked middle and no extra pitch? Not really a premium product at all. The Middle Eastern carriers are more tightly squeezed across in coach than most US carriers in many cases; that’s not something that a few movies solves on a 12 hour flight in my experience.
Are the lounges nicer elsewhere? Sure. They are also quite a bit more exclusive in terms of gaining access. Turns out when you’re serving fewer passengers and they’re each paying more to access the facilities you can have slightly better amenities. In markets where they are competing directly (mostly Asia) the US carriers do offer more competitive lounge products. Still not incredible, but reasonable in the market.
There was also a decent amount of misinformation in the piece. Discussions of US government subsidies (EAS routes) made it sound like the funding is offered in significant business markets, not for random airports which wouldn’t be served otherwise. Suggestions of government subsidies for the Middle Eastern carriers is also an interesting topic when it comes up. No evidence, naturally, but the accusations are there. And there were the references to the "golden age" of air travel, neglecting the part where the amount of space one has today on a business or first class seat on long-haul flights is far greater than 30 years ago. But who’s counting?
There is very much a difference between the long-haul and short-haul markets, either in the US or elsewhere. US carriers haven’t been particularly ahead of the curve in cabin comfort for long-haul. That said, the original Continental BusinessFirst seat was ahead of the pack for business class when it was launched (a long time ago). And the US Airways Envoy Suite is the business class product that Cathay Pacific and American Airlines have coopted for their long-haul fleets. Not consistently ahead of the curve, but there are flashes of brilliance every now and then. And with some of the vaunted Asian and European carriers still offering angle-flat seats on comparable routes it isn’t particularly fair to suggest that the US is that far behind across the board.
For better or for worse, flying is simply transportation. And it is rarely luxurious, regardless of which carrier you’re booked on. I wish things were nicer, but I know I’m not going to pay for it. And neither are most other passengers. Such is life.