United’s newly announced “Basic Economy” tickets seem, on the face of it, like the next ridiculous step in the ongoing Kafkaesque adventure that flying has become. You get assigned your seat the day of, you’ll have to pay extra to use the overhead bins, and you get to enjoy all this amid shrinking seats, seemingly endless stories of racism and stupidity in the air, and no end in sight. But you also might someday be able to get across the planet for less than the cost of a good dinner…so there’s that.
Which begs the question: What the heck is happening with passenger flying?
The answer is the economics of flying as a passenger are complicated, and only getting messier. At root, there’s a simple task to complete: Airlines need to get a certain amount of weight aloft, and over a certain distance, at a profit. The heavier the plane is and the further it goes, the more costly it gets just to take off and land, forget make money on the enterprise. Domestic airlines, in 2015, spent $19 billion on 10 billion gallons of jet fuel alone. That said, that’s a substantial improvement; in 2015, fuel consumption dropped by a third, average fares dropped to the lowest level since 2010, and airlines posted $25.6 billion in profit, largely thanks to low oil prices.
That, however, obscures the industry’s long-term problems. Even as fares dropped by 50% between 1983 and 2013, the airline industry collectively lost $51 billion between 2001 and 2011 and in the twenty years before that, was profitable and not profitable like clockwork, with every other year being a loss. Believe it or not, this was the fallout of deregulation: Before 1978, the government controlled almost everything about air travel until Jimmy Carter passed the Airline Deregulation Act Of 1978, something the airlines at the time were against.
They had good reason to be. United’s decision to make overhead bins premium is part of an ongoing price war over the last forty years to drive air travel fares ever lower, in the hopes of getting one more butt in one more seat. What United is trying to do is make being heavier, in terms of luggage, more expensive, so they can save a few precious dollars on fuel. And this is far from over. Ryanair’s CEO — head of a company that once considered installing pay toilets on airplanes — thinks that in the future, the flying will be free, a draw to get people to the airport to buy overpriced food.
Another factor in play is that not every airline has to be a profitable enterprise. If you’re heading overseas, you’re most likely using an airline at least partially owned by that country’s government. Those tend to have more wiggle room, although if their government is in trouble, the airline usually is too. In many cases, running an airline is more about ensuring business opportunities and tourism that it is about collecting fares, creating an odd scenario where increasingly it’s cheaper to go to Europe than it is to travel in the US.
But will this trend hold? The rise of nationalism across the world will inevitably make it difficult to cross borders. Brexit is likely going to make air travel more complex and kinda miserable. It might also create havoc as currencies drop and jet fuel prices increase. And state-owned airlines are no more immune to economics than the rest of the world; if it becomes too expensive to take off, or travelers simply won’t pay what the airlines have to ask, they might stop certain routes, which would then impact tourism.
But even if the economic and political circumstances of flying stay stable, the technology of flying will likely shift everything. Sometimes the ideas are surprisingly low-tech, if once again catering to the absurd. For example, research is being done to see if “standing cabins,” that is, airplanes without seats, would be safe enough to fly. A more out-there idea is Airbus’ plan to stack passengers like cordwood, although at least you get a seat. Or there’s this design by Zodiac Seats that alternates passengers facing forward and backward and puts seats as close to each other as possible.
But the future technology of air travel isn’t all new and creative ways to make traveling miserable. The idea of a solar-powered airliner — in terms of covering it with panels and launching it — is little more than a dream, at the moment, but electric-powered aircraft are increasingly a possibility, and hybrid craft that burn less fuel or use fuel cells and batteries to power electrical systems appeal to airlines not for the green factor, but because it wrings even more miles out of a gallon of fuel.
Of course, nobody quite knows what the future holds. One way or another, we’ll still be flying, perhaps for cheaper than ever. Though if the United move is any indication, those of us in economy, may be a little cramped.