|Grounded passengers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport after a December storm. (M. SPENCER GREEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)|
Bus riders in the sky
Lines, delays, and few amenities leave business fliers yearning for the 'good old days'
Some years ago, on a flight from Kansas City, Mo., to Boston, the woman sitting next to Lee Levitt asked him if he would give up his aisle seat in exchange for her husband's middle seat a few rows back.
Levitt, a Needham businessman, considered the long, cramped flight he would have to endure in a middle seat and told the woman, "No." The woman responded by jamming her high heel into Levitt's thigh.
"At first I did nothing," recalled Levitt, a frequent business traveler who now works for IDC, a market research company in Framingham. "I casually looked down. Then I looked at her and I said, 'Frankly, ma'am, I'm enjoying that.' "
Levitt, who has logged 1.4 million air miles, ultimately relented, giving up his seat to spare his sanity, he said. His is a classic story of travel frustration unleashed. But what is most troubling about Levitt's tale is that it happened more than a decade ago in what business travelers now fondly call the "good old days."
Business travel, always a pain, may have never been less enjoyable than it is today. Flight arrivals and departures are more likely to be delayed now than at any time in the last six years. The big carriers are flying 13 percent fewer planes than they were in 2000 and some have made even greater reductions. According to Air Transport Association data late last year,
Fewer planes, combined with an increased number of travelers, have made flights more crowded than they have been since 1946, when the ATA's year-end report was still comparing airplanes to Pullman railroad cars. Upgrades? Forget about it. Good fares? Good luck. The airlines have increased fares 22 times in the last two years and
"Fares are continuing to go up because demand is continuing to increase and demand is continuing to outpace growth and supply," said Frank Schnur, vice president of consulting for American Express advisory services. "On the hotel side, for
example, there's just been more demand than hoteliers have been able to build new hotels. On the airline side, demand has been increasing while supply has not been increasing."
The problem, said Daniel Saul, is that the post-9/11 predictions that Americans would stop flying have not come true. "The number of planes flying went down," said Saul, president of Smarter Living, the Boston-based publisher of smartertravel.com. "But business travel stayed strong."
Web- and video-conferencing, while more popular today than five years ago, still cannot replace face-to-face meetings, business executives say. And so, they continue to travel without the upgrades they worked to earn, without the meals they grew accustomed to, and even sometimes without a pillow or blanket, crammed into a middle seat, next to a busy bathroom, on a transcontinental flight.
"It's a lot less fun than it used to be. You're pretty much treated the same way whether you're the most important traveler out there or someone going to Vegas on a cheap ticket," said Noah Eckhouse, a Lincoln resident who flies regularly on business for Bentley Systems, a software company. "It's like riding a bus in the sky."
But there is some good news for the frequent flier. In the first nine months of 2006, break-even load factor -- the load, or number of passengers, that planes must carry to break even -- was falling for the first time since 2003.
This may help take some pressure off the airlines to pack planes, said John Heimlich, chief economist at the transport association. But with airline profit margins still slim, nothing is guaranteed. The only thing that's clear, Heimlich said, is that airlines must be mindful that crowded planes don't drive customer satisfaction down so far that travelers begin to look elsewhere.
"You know the Yogi Berra quote: 'The restaurant was so crowded, nobody goes there anymore?' " Heimlich said. "That's classic, my friend. The laws of economics apply to restaurants -- and airplanes."
Business travelers who pine for the 1980s , when they say air travel was far less stressful, may be subscribing a bit to revisionist history. In 1986, for example, The
Looking back on it now, however, air travel then wasn't nearly as bad as it seemed. In 1986, the industry load factor -- or the number of seats filled per flight -- was 60.7 percent, the second lowest figure in the last 20 years and far lower than today's 79.5 percent. Some business travelers even claimed in one 1989 survey that they actually enjoyed traveling. These "road warriors," as the Hyatt Corp. survey called them, claimed to not feel much stress while traveling and reporting feeling "totally in control."
"Business travel was a pleasure," said Levitt. "There weren't many lines. There was no security. You'd walk up to the counter, pick up your ticket, walk onto the plane. Flight attendants would come over and give you a drink. They'd take your coat and hang it up. And this was in coach."
Even those who don't fly very often know enough to realize that times have changed. Complaining about the lack of scrambled egg breakfasts on airplanes -- as people did in 1986 -- now seems almost quaint. Paige Arnoff-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens and Moguls, a Cambridge-based marketing consulting company, said she has learned to expect nothing when traveling on business.
"It's a cattle car, and you'll eat when they happen to bring by the peanuts. That's about all you'll get," she said. "Even when you're flying to California these days, that's about all you'll get."
But amid the frustration that many feel while traveling today, business travelers in particular push on. Knowing they won't get much to eat on flights, they bring their own. Not willing to check their liquid-filled luggage, they don't bring any liquids at all and instead buy toiletries at every stop.
Nicole Leboeuf, area manager for business travel sales at Hilton and Doubletree Hotels in Boston, said some weekly customers are even leaving their toiletry kits behind, watched over by the concierge until they return . "They'd rather do that," she said, "than forsake their time at the airport."
Business travelers are also looking at other ways to go, and new business models are rushing to fill a void. LimoLiner, a shuttle company that offers daily service between Boston and New York with such perks as high-speed wireless Internet, is thriving. The Stoughton-based company reported 18,000 riders in 2004, its first full year in operation, and 29,000 last year -- 61 percent growth.
Meantime, Joseph Baron, a partner at PureTech Development in Boston, is getting ready to launch a new web site tentatively called vado.com ("I go" in Italian). The site, Baron said, will be geared to helping business travelers connect with like-minded people and even tech support in far away places.
Whether such things will make business travel more enjoyable remains to be seen. Levitt, for one, likes to stay positive. Flying for business is better than digging ditches, he believes, even if people keep asking him to surrender his aisle seat for the dreaded middle seat. It happened again last fall, he said. A woman with a baby sitting next to Levitt wanted him to take her husband's middle seat elsewhere on the plane on a flight from San Francisco to Boston.
Levitt said he would do it, but only if the woman's husband could find him another aisle seat. When the man couldn't, Levitt stayed put, prepared to face the woman's wrath. He figured his aisle seat was worth it, whatever footwear might be headed his way.
"I think she was a little insulted," he recalled. "But she was civil to me afterward , and the baby slept the entire flight, which was amazing."
Contact Keith O'Brien, a freelance writer in Boston, at email@example.com .