How modern air travel got so miserable — and how to make for smooth flying instead

Over the course of the next month, I am taking four substantial roundtrip flights. My daughters, meanwhile, are both traveling home from thousands of miles away, twice, to spend the holidays together. And on the one hand, what a privilege to live in an age in which virtually any point on the globe is accessible. On the other hand, it’s unlikely all this getting around isn’t going to have some real moments of suck.

There are few recent book titles that pack the immediate resonance of legal scholar and Vanderbilt law professor Ganesh Sitaraman’s “Why Flying Is Miserable: And How to Fix It.” Flying is so miserable for so many of us in the U.S., the notion of fixing it barely seems an option. J.D. Power’s 2023 North American Airline Satisfaction Study found passenger dissatisfaction on the rise from the year before, though travelers in first and business class report better experiences. For the rest of us back in economy, though, air travel is often fraught — especially as we enter the busiest travel season of the year.

It actually doesn’t have to be this bad. As Sitaraman explains, there are reasons it takes longer to get from place to place, and why the journey is so unpleasant. His book is a fascinating history of modern capitalism, an investigation into the wide-ranging ripple effects of airline deregulation and a clear-eyed call for action. I recently talked to Sitaraman via video chat about why airlines are abandoning smaller cities, how deregulation led to narrower seats and why it’s wise to prepare for the worst when you head out to the airport. 

 This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

One of the most interesting points in the book is the death of access. People who do not live in New York or Chicago or L.A. or Miami have a really hard time getting from point A to point B. As we’re thinking about holiday travel, this is a real sticking point for a lot of people in a lot of places in America right now.

What’s happened is that airlines are doing two things. One is they are reducing service to cities. If you look at the big airlines, since the pandemic, 74 cities have lost service from one of the airlines. That’s a huge number of airlines, a huge number of places that have less competition, and have really lost access to a whole bunch of places they would have had access to already. Some cities have lost all service for major carrier carriers. I talked in the book about Toledo, Ohio, Dubuque, Iowa. These places used to have big airline service, at least would get them to a hub and now have lost that also. The airlines are abandoning places. 

“It’s much more inconvenient for passengers because now we have to connect where maybe we didn’t have to before.”

The other thing is that airlines have moved — and this is a multi-decade trend — from point-to-point service with nonstop flights from one city to another to a hub and spokes model. That has really gotten more and more hub-oriented with what people call “fortress hubs,” these huge airports like Dallas or Atlanta, that are dominated by one airline, which routes a lot of traffic through that hub. And for the airlines, this is really efficient. It means they don’t have to run as many point-to-point flights for to a lot of different cities, they can just run everything to Atlanta or Charlotte or Detroit, wherever your preferred hub is. Then you connect and you go somewhere else. It’s much more inconvenient for passengers because now we have to connect where maybe we didn’t have to before. 

It’s also much more fragile for the system. If you have high winds in Dallas one day, a third of the flights around the country might be delayed. If the hub and the network goes down, it has cascading effects all throughout the whole network. 

The last part is really bad for communities, because economic growth, tourism, friends and family visiting, business, conventions, all of these things are dependent on being able to get to places. If you lose all air service, it’s a lot harder to imagine a young entrepreneur with an idea of that’s going to be the next Fortune 500 company starting up that company in a place that has no airline service, or even maybe one flight a week. You really need people to be able to get there for that to be a viable business. That’s a real problem across the board. In the book. I talk a lot about geographic equality problems because I think they’re a real part of the problems of our system, and they don’t get that much attention. And a huge part of the country should be outraged at this and should be clamoring for change.

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Take me back to an early inflection point, with airline deregulation in 1978. 

To understand what airline deregulation is, it’s helpful to give a little bit of historical context. There have really been three big periods that we can think about. The first, I’d call the stable system, was from the 1930s to the 1970s. Congress created a regulatory system called the Civil Aeronautics Act, run by the Civil Aeronautics Board, which was a federal government agency. The idea was, we should have stable, reliable airline service all throughout the country.

The Civil Aeronautics Board, the regulator, allocated routes to different airlines. They made sure they were just and reasonable prices that they set for all the different flights. They made sure the airlines didn’t go bankrupt. They made sure they didn’t need any bailouts. They tried to wean them off of subsidies when this was just a starting out business and industry. They effectively treated airlines like utilities. The idea was, this was an important public service. We had a period of regulated competition. There was competition, it was often over service quality, and there are a number of different airlines that competed. But that was the system.

In the 1970s, a number of advocates for deregulation said, this stable system we have is a cartel. Market competition is better than thinking of airlines like infrastructure or utility. They said, “Imagine if you had 200 stable airlines, and imagine that you could have that with cheaper prices, and no real downsides. All we have to do is let the airlines fly wherever they want, whenever they want, and charge whatever they want. And in the market world of doing that, everything will be great.” 

“We didn’t end up in the dream world of deregulation. What we got was basically ‘The Hunger Games.'”

But we didn’t end up in the dream world of deregulation. What we got was phase two, which was basically “The Hunger Games.” In the 1980s, you have this cutthroat competition between the airlines, where they’re attempting to break their unions and reduce pay and benefits for workers. They’re engaging in all kinds of anti-competitive behaviors to push new entrants out and organize themselves in more scaled ways. This is when you see the hub and spokes system move to create more efficiency and power in different routes. There’s dozens of bankruptcies and mergers in this period, all kinds of chaos. 

Over time, that chaos then settles into where we are now, which I would call phase three: monopoly capitalism. You don’t have much choice, you get bad service, and bad prices. If you’ve ever sit in coach on a long flight, you’re going to end up with a bad back in the process. Where we are now is we have less competition today than we had during regulation. We have more concentration at airports, and we have all kinds of daily miseries. I’ve never heard anyone say they love how small the seat is in an airplane or they loved paying all the extra fees for their baggage and to pick their seats. That’s where we are now, this switch from a more utility like model to a market competition model.

Often in a lot of markets, competition is great, and it works really well. But in this sector, it doesn’t work very well. That’s why we’ve ended up with concentration instead. What I argue in the book is we need to take seriously the economic dynamics of this sector. They’re different than making coffee mugs or selling office chairs. 

As consumers, the costs have shifted to have what used to be a basic experience is now premium experience, that we have to pay quite a bit extra for. 

One of the things that economists like to say is, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We are paying for all of the things — we’re just paying for them in different ways. It may be that you’re paying for them with additional upgrades or service fees are you’re paying for them in your time by waiting a longer and longer period, having to spend an entire day to get from one place to another. There’s a real cost, a real downside to this system we have that, for passengers is pretty miserable.

That was one of the surprising things I found in doing the research for the book is how many of the deregulators later on, some of them actually just devalued the other values we might have. Alfred Kahn, at one point, even says he didn’t think it was a legitimate concern to care about the quality of service on an airline. Well, other people would probably disagree.

This then gets flipped to the rage that consumers feel. I’m sure you too have witnessed people screaming at the gate agent screaming at the flight attendant. There is this level of tension when you go to the airport. How do all those elements feed into each other? If we had a better regulated system, is it possible that people wouldn’t be as volatile when they’re traveling?

Obviously I can’t speak for every single person. But I think in general, we would have a lot less hot tempers and volatility if we had a different system. The reason why is it all comes back to policy choices. The big policy choice of deregulation was to design a structure that when the airlines work within it, what they’re trying to do is maximize their profits, cut all their costs. What that means is it creates a whole system that is less convenient for passengers. In the regulated era, the system of competition we had was actually quality of service focused because they couldn’t compete as much on price and they had a guaranteed revenue, because the regulators didn’t want them to go bankrupt and wanted them to be a successful industry. 

“We need to focus on the dynamics that are pushing the airlines overall to make the system that is kind of miserable for all of us.”

In that era, you had competition for things like, “Who can have the best service inside the airplanes?” You have piano bars and steak and free alcohol and all of this stuff. That’s how they were competing, not today with, “How much can we shrink the seats to become smaller and smaller?” And a byproduct when you have shrunken seats is that people are closer together. They’re a little bit more irritated because they don’t have any elbow room, where somebody puts the tray down in front of them and they’re irritated because they don’t have space.

All of those things are a function of these other dynamics. If we try to just address all the problems on a one-off basis, we’re basically putting band-aids on what is a much bigger issue. We need to focus on the dynamics underlying this that are pushing the airlines overall to make the system that is kind of miserable for all of us, instead of one that is a favorable one for all of us. I think we can have that kind of system. We just need to set rules in place to do it.

I will sacrifice certain perks and certain luxuries for a more minimalist experience if that means I pay less money. What a lot of us didn’t bargain for is, “This is actually going to suck. And I’m not really saving any money. It’s actually not that cost-efficient.” It’s just a brutally unpleasant experience that’s become normalized.

That’s one of the most dangerous things about it, is the combination of it being normalized, and a feeling of powerlessness, that there’s nothing you can do about it. That this is what we have to live with. Part of the reason I wrote the book is that we do have alternatives. Partly learning from history, and this is not to say that the past was the past was perfect, but we can see there are different ways we could do this. We don’t have to have it be the way it is right now. We can imagine a better future instead of the one that we have. Getting people to think, “I don’t have to be so powerless, I can actually push people in Congress to do something about this,” that’s my hope. 

I recently spent two months in Europe, where there’s an efficient train system. You can get from city to city, you can even go long distances, because you’re having an experience that feels civilized, and human. We don’t have that here. We don’t have alternatives. Meanwhile, the demand for travel has gone up. We as American consumers assume we’re going to fly. And now, as you say, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of flights out of a small concentration of hubs every day.

There’s a couple of pieces to this. One is, how do we think about our national transportation policy? It’s not just about airline policy or rail policy or cars. It’s actually about all of them interconnected. Maybe if we had a system where we didn’t focus as much on cars, we could take more trains or airlines. You can imagine a system that uses all three in a kind of interconnected way, along with buses and subways and other things to create a transportation system as a whole, as opposed to just a highway system and a bus system and a train system and an airline system all individually. 

The second is, rail went through the same kind of similar deregulation process in the 20th century also. There just used to be a lot more train tracks around the United States that were in active use than there were than there are now. Part of our story here is the combination of deregulation there too, plus, again, investing in what we want as our kind of core infrastructure, is how we can make our transportation system better. That, again, is really a policy question. It’s possible we could do any of this, we just need to do it.

Let’s get into that. We are not traveling less. We’re not going to give up those seats. What as activists advocating for change can we do? And are there any things we can do to make different choices as consumers?

As consumers as passengers, the biggest thing I’d say is, be prepared for the experience. You’re going to have delays. If you don’t, it’ll be great. But if you’re prepared for it, you’re less likely to be irritated when it happens. Mentally prepare yourself that this might be what happens and be ready. Bring a snack, you know, have a book that you want to read. Then you’ll be in a better place when something bad happens. Trying to build your day where you’re doing really short turnarounds or connections, you’re leaving almost no time for any delays. Then you’re frustrated because you miss a meeting or, or aren’t able to see your friends or miss the birthday party. You need to plan for all of that being possible. 

The second thing is, whether we’re able to make changes in the short term or the long term is really about people getting more active in directing their outrage and disgust and irritation toward Congress. Ultimately, the airlines are working in the policy regime that Congress has given them. Congress makes the rules here, and it decides we’re going to have a system that works in a certain way. The airlines will comply with the rules that Congress sets. The real problem here is Congress that has set bad rules that aren’t solving our problems. The way we address that is people need to be more upset about that. And here’s the thing, a lot of people fly. There’s a lot of people in every district in the country and every state in the country who can go to their members of Congress and say, “This is outrageous.” This should be a really popular issue for congresspeople to take on. And I think part of what they need is just a push, because it’s their job to listen, and to do something about these kinds of things.

If you could pick one thing to focus on and change, what would that be?

To me, it would go back to actually where we started. The geographic concentration of hubs, the loss of service to different cities, have effects in a whole bunch of different ways — from fragility and delays and cancellations to convenience and access — to economic growth and opportunity. If we could do something about that problem, it would address a lot of other problems and have a lot of other benefits. That’s where I feel like the bang for our buck in making changes there is pretty high. 

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