Sunday, March 26, 2023
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How Low Can Airlines Go?

My traditionally cheery holiday social media feeds, usually populated by adorable children viciously ripping open presents like tiny animals, were littered instead this week with images of thwarted passengers in never-ending airport lines and real-time updates on the cascading meltdown of Southwest Airlines, which canceled 57 percent of its flights on Thursday alone, leaving passengers stranded all over the country. My family and I missed this chaos because we left Brooklyn for rural Alabama on Dec. 19 via Delta Air Lines, and I am mostly just grateful that we didn’t go to Omaha, as we do every other year to visit my husband’s family, via Southwest. For many Americans, air travel is the only feasible option to see relatives for the holidays or to take long trips for urgent reasons, like medical treatments and family emergencies, and when it’s not cost-prohibitive, it’s often simply miserable.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans live within an hour’s drive of at least some of their extended family members, but my husband and I are in the minority who live very, very far from our families. This year, a month before we planned to travel, I paid $2,544 for three plane tickets and two bags to Montgomery, which has the airport closest to my hometown, Wetumpka.
This means it is easier and cheaper for me to get to London from Brooklyn ($344 per round-trip ticket from Kennedy Airport when I last searched) than to where my parents live, and this is true every year. Now, tickets to Alabama are never cheap, but I paid about $1,000 more this time — a total amount that’s beyond what I’ve ever paid for a month’s rent in one of the most expensive cities in the country. (The Consumer Price Index for airline tickets overall is up 25 percent this year.) Airlines also experienced major staffing shortages because they couldn’t rehire people they let go during the Covid pandemic fast enough to keep up with demand.
The comfort level of airline economy class seems, well, ever less comfortable as airlines choose to squeeze efficiencies out of their businesses, the cost of which partly falls on the customer. The pitch length (the distance between your seat and the same point on the seat in front of you) has decreased from a maximum of 35 inches in the 1980s to sometimes as little as 28 inches now. I’m 5-foot-1, rounding up, and weigh 120 pounds, give or take, and the only person in my family who doesn’t feel cramped in economy is our 40-pound 7-year-old, who is roughly the size of a carry-on bag that would actually fit in the overhead space. (To his disappointment, we have not tried this. He said it would be “cozy” in there.)



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