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Bus riders in the sky

Lines, delays, and few amenities leave business fliers yearning for the 'good old days'

Grounded passengers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport after a December storm. Grounded passengers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport after a December storm. (M. SPENCER GREEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2007

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, Delta Air Lines' fleet is down 21 percent, United's is down 24 percent.

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 American Express recently predicted that domestic air fares will increase by as much as 5 percent this year and some hotel rates by as much as 8 percent.

"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 New York Times ran a story under this headline: "Boom in Air Travel Squeezes the Glamour Out." The story bemoaned the general state of the industry, complaining about rude ticket agents, a lack of coloring books for children, poor meals, and, of course, crowded planes.

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 keith@keithob.com .

If You Go

Here is advice from specialists and statistics from the airline industry to help make your next flight, be it for business or pleasure, a better one:

If you never miss a flight, you're spending too much time in airports. "It turns out missing a flight is no big deal," said one savvy traveler. Just explain to the gate agent what happened; usually they are understanding, and you will be on another flight soon. But Daniel Saul, of smartertravel.com, said people should be careful, especially when flying during peak hours from busy destinations. If you think you might miss a flight, he said, call the airline to check whether there are seats available on others.

If you have a special request, make it at the gate. "The rules," said one business traveler, "become less and less important the closer you get to the boarding gate." A request made on the phone to change a flight or some other travel detail might be denied. But be patient and pleasant at the gate while making the same request and you might get a different answer. Another tactic: Keep asking at all levels.

Always check in the night before. Automated kiosks at airports have made check-in much easier. But if you are late for your flight, a kiosk might not grant you a boarding pass. So always check in from home or from work, and carry your boarding pass with you. Then, if you're cutting it close, you are more likely to make it. "That little piece of paper," said one traveler, "is magic."

Carry your laptop in one bag, your cords in another. "My laptop might weigh five pounds, but the cords weigh three," said one frequent traveler. Carrying the cords, chargers , and other accessories in a separate bag makes the laptop bag lighter and easier to handle at security check-in. Another laptop suggestion: Put it on the security belt last, ensuring that it won't sit unattended for long on the other side.

Don't bring a toiletry kit or leave one at the hotel. With travelers now restricted to bringing "travel-size toiletries (three ounces or less) that fit comfortably in one, quart-size, clear plastic, zip-top bag," many road warriors are buying toiletries at each stop or even leaving toiletry kits behind at hotels where they stay often. Of course, you can always put toiletries in your checked baggage.

Book early. With flights more crowded than they have been in decades, book flights early -- even months in advance -- not only to make sure you get a seat, but to get the seat you want. Turns out, there can be a big difference. Check out seatguru.com to learn about the seats on your plane. For example, on a Delta Airlines Boeing 737-800, seat 13A, a window seat, "is missing a window," and some passengers find it "slightly cramped due to the panel . . . in place of the window," according to the web site. But seat 18C is in an exit row , has extra legroom , and can be fully reclined.

Bring food. Seasoned travelers always bring snacks, even entire meals . "I could survive 12 hours on an airplane," said one, "without external food sources."

Don't travel in your business clothes. Dress casually and wear slip-on shoes, easily removed at security. This is especially important on transcontinental flights, said one traveler, who has "changed in airports, changed in parking lots."

Be mindful of Flight 5518. According to the most recent Air Travel Consumer Report issued in January, Comair 5518 from JFK Airport in New York to Boston, departing at 6 p.m., was the worst single flight among reporting airports in November. It arrived late more than 96 percent of the time. Average delay: 71 minutes.

Best time to fly out of Boston: Morning. In the 12 months ending in November, flights leaving Logan between 6 and 9 a.m. departed on schedule 90 percent of the time.

Worst time to fly out of Boston: In the 12 months ending in November, flights between 10 and 11 p.m. left on schedule just 54 percent of the time.

Best time to fly into Boston: In the 12 months ending in November, flights coming into Logan between 7 and 8 a.m. were on schedule 89 percent of the time.

Worst time to fly into Boston: In the 12 months ending in November, flights between 8 and 9 p.m. were on schedule 55 percent of the time.

If you think your planes are often late, you're probably right. In the first 11 months of 2006, flights arrived at Logan on schedule 71.4 percent of the time and departed on schedule 77.3 percent of the time. That placed Logan 25th in arrivals and 20th in departures out of the 31 big airports charted by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The best city to fly into: Cincinnati (83.7 percent) . The best city to fly out of: Salt Lake City (86.5 percent) .

KEITH O'BRIEN

SOURCES: Air Travel Consumer Reports; Bureau of Transportation Statistics; interviews with Paige Arnoff-Fenn, Diane Darling, Noah Eckhouse, Nicole Leboeuf, Lee Levitt, and Daniel Saul.

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