Delta and other air carriers score big profits on passenger misery

Remember the old days of air travel? A friendly stewardess took your coat, stowed your bags and served you meals inspired by well-known restaurants. The pilot strolled through the cabin for a chat and you never had to scramble for a pillow or a blanket.

APRIL 30, 2016 ATLANTA Crews move a retired Boeing 747-400 to the Delta Flight museum Saturday, April 30, 2016. Delta Air Lines Ship 6301 made its final journey to Delta's Atlanta world headquarters campus in preparation for the Delta Flight Museum's latest exhibit featuring the retired aircraft. On September 9, 2015, Delta retired Ship 6301, the first Boeing 747-400 aircraft manufactured for a commercial airline, after its final flight from Honolulu to Atlanta.  KENT D. JOHNSON /kdjohnson@ajc.com

KENT D. JOHNSON /kdjohnson@ajc.com

If that is hard to imagine, it’s not surprising. For nearly four decades, since the Airline Deregulation Act passed in 1978 ending government control of fares and routes, the industry has been in a tailspin — at least for passengers.

In the October issue, Consumer Reports details the myriad of ways in which air carriers have subjected travelers to indignities, both seen and unseen, making air travel a nightmare.

Airlines have become so focused on profits and they will do almost anything to increase them. In 2015, air carriers earned record profits of $25.6 billion even as passenger satisfaction remained low.

It doesn’t help that four major carriers — including Atlanta-based Delta Airlines — control 80 percent of the market. There is little incentive to serve a customer who has limited choices.

One of the most notable issues is fares, which declined in 2015 for the first time since 2012. The decrease came after the Department of Justice opened an investigation as to whether the four largest carriers — American, Delta, Southwest and United — had colluded to keep ticket prices high.

Of course, much of the 3.7 percent decrease in fares was offset by the ballooning fees charged to customers. Bag fees, seat selection fees, and fees for meals are just some of the items that passengers are increasingly expected to pay for when they fly.

Related: Baggage fee lawsuit now includes millions of fliers

LEDE PHOTO - August 8, 2016 Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: Long lines of travelers formed at the Delta Airlines ticketing early Monday, Aug. 8, 2016 at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after a computer outage caused cancellations and delays across its entire operation, delaying travelers during one of the busiest travel periods of the week. Delta resumed limited flight operations, but cancelled about 300 flights due to the problems caused by a power outage. Delta earlier said that "large-scale cancellations" are expected today. The airline is gradually resuming flights as it brings systems back online, and expects the number of departures to grow throughout the day. By 10:30 a.m., Delta said it had operated 800 of the nearly 6,000 flights it had scheduled for the day. "Customers headed to the airport should expect delays and cancellations," Delta said. Delta customers should check their flight status before heading to the airport. Monday mornings are a peak period for business travelers starting the work week, as well as for vacationers returning from weekend trips and others. The computer system failure was due to a power outage in Atlanta that began at about 2:30 a.m., according to Delta. The question of when Delta can resume its regular flight schedule in full and when delays will end will depend on not just the relaunch of the computer systems, but also the availability of crews whose work hours are subject to federal limits, and other factors. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

 JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Even as airlines have increased fees, more comforts have disappeared.

Consumer Reports found that airline seats have shrunk with the narrowest seats in coach at 17 inches wide. First Class seats are 21 to 30 inches wide. Leg room has also been dramatically reduced. At 30 inches on some planes, the space between rows is 1 to 5 inches less than it was in 1985.

Some airlines do better than others. It is probably no coincidence that Spirit, the lowest rated airline, has about 28 inches of leg room on most of its aircraft.

Atlanta-based Delta ranked second among the four major carriers in the CR rankings and smack in the middle of the 13 providers measured. Southwest ranked first among the four majors and second overall.

Delta’s  biggest failings were on leg room, seat width and comfort, room for carry-on bags, food and in-flight entertainment.

Related: Delta testing out new in-flight snacks: Cashews, yogurt bars

It scored slightly better on cabin cleanliness and “no hidden fees,” and got average scores for ease of check-in and service from airline staff.

There are plenty of other questionable changes that have happened behind the scenes in air travel that may not be in the best interest of passengers according to Consumer Reports.

In some cases, a fuel surcharge may be tacked on to your ticket price. And depending on your travel route, you may be paying a major carrier fares to fly on a regional carrier. Some airlines don’t always make it clear when you are booking that you will be flying a contracted carrier which may not feature standard amenities.

Finally, airlines are increasingly outsourcing maintenance to third-party companies overseas which has raised questions of safety.

So far, there doesn’t seem to be any cause for concern. There have been no accident related fatalities on U.S. planes since 2009 compared to about seven accidents per year from 1964 to 1973.

Reader Comments 0

18 comments
afixinto
afixinto

THIS IS A FRIEND'S EXPERIENCE RECENTLY WITH SPIRIT....

Spirit would not let us print boarding passes from home to pay a lower bag fee online for a flight to Jamaica 8/29/16.At the airport they charged us $50/carryon  or $100 for 2 small carryon bags weighing 11 lbs each that have NEVER been checked in our visits to over 100 countries.Spirit left 2 hours late from Lauderdale and arrived Montego over 2 hours late so we missed our meeting. On our return 9/3/16 the staff at the Holiday Inn Resort in Montego Bay tried 4 times to print boarding passes for our return and was unable to print even though Spirit took our credit card number four times. When we got to the Montego airport Spirit said the charge didn’t go through (4 times)and they wanted $40 per carryon so we charged one carry on and left the American Tourister carryon.  Spirit made us check the one carryon to get the $40. fee  The return flight was also late leaving with the excuse of crew change and so we were late arriving in Lauderdale and missed our train home and had to take an expensive taxi.We plan on disputing this scam $140 rip off plus they owe us for the bag we left, the one hour taxi ride, all the wasted vacation time trying to get boarding passes, disappointment, stress and hassle. 

Jermale Jenkins
Jermale Jenkins

People never learn. And of course all while charging ignorant bag fees.

Todd Newsome
Todd Newsome

This comes from a newspaper that will only let you read a few articles a month online for free, then they want to charge you a fee.

Kerry Hill
Kerry Hill

That's capitalism that's American why is anyone surprised that Americans choose money over anything else

NoelR
NoelR

I am a former Eastern Airline flight attendant and have been a travel agent for 23 years, so I have see a lot of change in the airline business. Delta and the other major airlines are making billions off of fees, and cramming in more seats. If Southwest can be a profitable airline without fees, why can't they? The fees were originally implemented to offset the rising fuel prices years ago, but now they are taking advantage of the travelers. I travel often and have mostly good service on Delta, but as a travel agent, I resent the myriad of different classes of service affecting fares that confuse the general public. I think Delta should set an example for the rest of the airlines and stop some of these fees, and make the seats more comfortable, not just the seats people are now expected to pay extra for.

MyLibrarian
MyLibrarian

I have to fly 1st Class because the seat belt won't fit around me, and I am definitely overweight, but not extremely fat. It's the only way to avoid the embarrassment of having to ask for a seat belt extender.  Why can't they just make the belts a little longer?  I can fit into the seat just fine.

MarySusan
MarySusan

To be honest, I am a loyal Delta flyer, but I 100 percent agree with the headline. It is callous executives indeed that generate increased profits by cramming the elderly, tall persons, and people with spinal conditions in tight seats that don't even meet ergonomic standards. All the employees and public relations people can write in glowing comments to this article as long as they like, but that does not alter the facts: the seats are dangerously tight and cause health harm. Our hometown airline cares more for high profits than human decency.

ChessMaster
ChessMaster

The narrow seats are why I am driving on domestic vacations. I also turned down jobs with too much travel. The airlines say, "Jus reserve two seats and we won't charge you for the second seat if the plan isn't full. Good luck with that. Also, siting on who seats has the issue of fighting with the hump they create.

Suntrust Park and Mercedes Stadium are both increasing seat size to please their customers. I guess they noticed that 6 foot tall 220 lb people need a larger seat.

Tacobet
Tacobet

Reduce executive salaries & pass along savings to customers.

TechFanSince1950
TechFanSince1950

My wife and I just traveled round trip to Ireland in the cheap seats with Delta and got off the plane yesterday. Service was terrific. The flight attendants worked hard through both flights. The captain on the flight going over came way back to check on all passengers. Yesterday I never had so much food on a plane. I wasn't in First Class. Flight got to Dublin and Atlanta earlier than on time. What more can I ask? Just saying...thanks Delta!

Kathleen684
Kathleen684

Comfort is nice, but safety is the absolute most important aspect of air travel. If the airlines can get me to my destination safely (and on-time, too), I am happy.

dhowardporter
dhowardporter

Of course, all this was foreseen by the airlines back in the 70s; I was there and was one of the vocal, letter-writing naysayers that said with the demise of deregulation. the less efficient airlines would cease to exist, there would be a consolidation of survivors and the business would become not only less competitive but cut-throat in seeking the bottom line.  Delta was right up there with the rest of the airlines in fighting deregulation but Alfred Kahn and all the so-called consumer advocates pushed ahead anyway and look where we are today. This should not surprise anyone.

Nick845
Nick845

We often look at seat size prior to booking long flights.  We pay a little more for greater than 30" of leg room, but it's not that much more.  Some of the foreign carriers do much better.  Being a Delta hub means we don't have many options other than Delta.  We look at Delta last but many times have to fly Delta with its compressed seat spacing.  Airlines can do better.  This article was right on.

UMO9310
UMO9310

Hmm, where would these dollars to allow fare reductions come from? Profits? A fuel surcharge that has survived the oil glut?  ;-)

Kim Rippere
Kim Rippere

"Airlines have become so focused on profits and they will do almost anything to increase them." This is true of most businesses right now. It is the problem with capitalism as it is being done in the US.

Coho
Coho

You wanted lower fares and cuts have to come from somewhere....It won't be fuel or safety....sucked it up ....