Bad Air: Is the Air Travel Experience Getting Worse?

Bad Air: Is the Air Travel Experience Getting Worse?

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Is it just me, or is it getting more crowded in here?

That’s what I think when I fly in the “Coach” or “Economy” cabin of an airliner these days.

As it turns out, I’m not wrong. The “pitch” (which most passengers think of as “legroom”) between the seats in those cabins has decreased by about 3” (and, on some planes as much as 6”) during the last two decades.

Now I haven’t been carrying a retractable measuring tape with me when I fly, so that assessment on what I call the “Airplane Sardine-Can Factor” isn’t based on my own research. Instead, it comes from former FAA chief legal counsel, Mark Gerchick, whose new book, Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today, discusses why passengers keep paying more, but keep getting less comfort and service in return, when they travel by air.

At the very beginning of the first chapter of Full Upright and Locked Position, entitled “The Disconnect: How We Fly Now,” Gerchick says something Baby Boomers like me would vigorously dispute:

“Not many of today’s fliers remember what air travel used to be like at the dawn of the ‘jet age” a half century ago.”

As I noted in “Air Travel: The Golden Age of The 707,” I grew up in Seattle at the time that the Pan Am 707Boeing Airplane Company was developing its first “big hit” airliner, the 707.

In “Flying in High Style: Pan Am,” I gave readers a taste of those glorious, bygone days of flying through the air with the greatest comfort and ease. And in part one of “Travel Tip: My No Fly List,” I recounted my experiences flying in “The Golden Age of Air Travel.

But as Gerchick points out, that was then, and this is now.

Full Upright and Locked Position argues that the 1978 deregulation of the airlines, the bursting of the “Dot Com Bubble” in 2000, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all contributed to the profound changes that passengers have encountered, particularly over the last decade and a half.

Here are a few of the downsides to flying in the modern age that Gerchick highlights in his book:

  • Humidity levels in the passenger cabin that “are very, very low, similar to Death Valley in the summertime.”
  • Dust-ups between passengers that can get out of control.
  • “The death of the baked-on-board chocolate-chip cookie.”
  • The “unbundling” services from the base airfare after airlines discovered that charging separately for them would be the flight path to profitability.

Gerchick isn’t the first person to tell airline passengers what they already knew: “Flying Sucks.”  That’s the phrase that journalist and former airline operations manager William J. McGee used as the title of the prologue to his literary rant about air travel today, Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent and How to Reclaim Our Skies.

McGee’s book concludes with “A Manifesto for Taking Back Our Skies.” And in part two of “Travel Tip: My ‘No Fly” List, I laid out for readers steps that they could take to make their own air travel experience more pleasant.

What’s clear is that the downward spiral in airline customer service will continue until each member of the flying public stands up and shouts “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” just as the character Howard Beale did in the 1976 movie Network.

(Listen to Mark Gerchick’s recent interview by Terry Gross for her NPR radio show, “Fresh Air.)

(Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today is available in hardcover and Kindle e-book versions from

You can also buy it in hardcover or Nook e-book versions from Barnes & Noble.

Barnes & Noble
It is also available as an Apple iBook that you can read on the iPod, iPad, and iPhone. Purchases made from, Barnes & Noble, or Apple’s iTunes through links on this page helps Tales Told From The Road continue to bring you a wide range of travel-related stories.)

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