The Wary Traveler

A Good Space Is Hard to Find

Caskie Stinnett

Things are bad for the United States airlines right now, and airlines react to adversity by raising rates, cutting services, eliminating flights, firing personnel, and crowding more seats into planes until on high-density routes passengers are forced into near-fetal positions.

It is no longer news that corporate earnings in the airline industry have been trimmed to the vanishing point by the soaring cost of jet fuel, but what is not widely known is that the industry has done an amazing job of fuel conservation and that the time may not be too far off when the fuel factor—while still a major expense—is no longer the scapegoat of airline stagnation. Progressive retirement of the 707, the faithful old workhorse which proved to be the uncontrollable gas-guzzler of the skies, computerized flight planning, improved maintenance, better engines, modest speed reductions, increased seating (there was slack in some cabin configurations), and a new government-approved “descent profile” reducing air traffic delays, all have combined to take some of the sting out of runaway fuel costs. In 1978, for example, U.S. airlines burned 50 million fewer gallons of fuel than they did in the carefree days of 1973, yet transported 78 million more passengers. Translated into productivity per gallon, this amounted to a 40 percent increase—an impressive accomplishment.

Since American travelers travel not only on domestic routes and in U.S. carriers but all over the world, it should be pointed out that what is happening at home is also happening elsewhere. In September 1980, British Airways—one of the world’s leading carriers—disclosed that it was cutting out fifty flights a week, firing 3500 staff personnel, selling two large London air terminals, and disposing of its hotel interests. (Most large airlines own hotel properties; United has Western International, TWA has Hilton International, Pan American has Intercontinental, Air France has Meridien, and other airlines have large or small hotel holdings depending upon the cities they serve and the need for passenger accommodations at those destination points.) These stringent measures were provoked by a British Airways pretax loss of $40.8 million by July 1980, against a $100.8 million profit over the same period last year. British Airways was not alone in this stunning reversal of profitability.

In such a climate of turbulence and contracting service and amenities, the passenger must look out for himself. What he once took for granted—that the airlines would provide the best that was possible and that it would be reasonably comfortable—is suddenly a highly questionable policy. Self-protection has become the beginning of wisdom for the traveler.

Let’s be specific. On a long flight, whether domestic or international, the aircraft will most likely be a 747, a DC10, a 1011-100, a 1011, or—still, but becoming less likely—a 707. Some seats in these aircraft are far better as locations than others, and the smart traveler should learn what to request. Gone are the days when a check-in agent displayed a diagram of the aircraft showing what seats were available; now the agent asks only whether a smoking or no-smoking location is preferred. Buttons are punched on a computer, and a boarding pass comes up containing a seat number. It is only after boarding that the passenger learns—often to his dismay—what he has been assigned.

On a long flight, especially an overnight one, the following are likely to be the least desirable locations:

1. Anything close to the auxiliary service bar. Here the loiterers congregate, talking, drinking, passing away the time in any way but sleep. Here the lights stay on all night.

2. Anything close to the galley. This is a beehive of activity, especially on a fully loaded plane. Feeding 350 passengers is a prodigious feat, and there is no way the activity can be lessened or the noise reduced. Even after the trays have been collected, stragglers wander in all night asking for water or coffee or soft drinks. Stewards and flight attendants do all they can to discourage this, but requests are difficult to refuse.

3. Anything close to the lavatories. There are never enough of them and on crowded planes those in line tend to lounge on the arms of aisle seats, jostle sleeping passengers, and carry on conversations with each other.

4. Anything too close to the movie screen, if the passenger intends to watch the movie. The row of seats immediately in front of the screen is the least desirable. The viewer must gaze upward at an angle that can be exhausting.

The typical seating arrangement in economy class for a 747 is three-fourthree, i.e. three seats against each side of the aircraft and four seats in the center. The standard configuration of a 1011 is two-five-two. Travelers should learn in advance what equipment is being used for their flight.

Some airlines—TWA is one—have small booklets containing seating guides for the aircraft they fly. The actual arrangement on any specific flight may vary slightly depending upon the demand for no-smoking seats, but the diagram shows both first-class and coach configurations and can be a fairly reliable guide in the selection of seats before one checks in. Lounges, galleys, lavatories, bars, closets, and storage areas are indicated, along with smoking and no-smoking areas. Remember, some seats do not recline at all on 707s, “stretch” 727s, and DC-9s, and some recline only partially. Also, some seats are normally reserved for cabin attendants. The smart traveler will learn these things and not throw himself upon the whim of a computer.

First-class passengers on long-haul flights who are attracted by the “sleeperette” seats on 747SPs should be warned that often the bulkhead seats in the upstairs sections do not offer enough room for the leg support and footrest to open properly. On a seventeen-hour flight recently, I occupied one of those seats—which I absentmindedly let the computer choose for me—and I found myself so close to the bulkhead that the sleeperette could not fully unfold.

Since airlines are now adding as many seats as they dare, it is foresighted of the traveler to take a trip when travel is at its slackest and the best accommodations are available. On the North Atlantic, February is the lowmonth, both eastbound and westbound, contributing only about 4 percent of the year’s traffic. The most crowded period is westbound in August, when the month’s share of annual traffic reaches about 14 percent. The four months from June 1 through September account for almost half of the year’s traffic, both eastbound and westbound. Next to February, the slackest month is January, followed by November and March. During these months, if airlines don’t consolidate too many flights and offer too many discount and promotional fares, it may be possible to find a bloc of two or three vacant seats in which a few hours’ sleep can be had.

There is nothing on the horizon to encourage travelers that things will get better; on the contrary, crowded planes will be a fact of life as long as the energy crisis exists. The new aircraft being built for short-haul domestic flights are being scaled down in size. The European-built. A-300 (Airbus) now has a smaller sister called the A-310, which is considered more adaptable to U.S. route lengths and traffic demands. Most of Lockheed’s advanced versions are smaller than the original 1011. Boeing’s forthcoming 757 will seat only 177 passengers while the bigger Boeing plane, the 767, will have a passenger capacity of slightly more than 200. Smaller aircraft carrying a full passenger load is the new order of things.

On the international scene, American carriers are having an increasingly hard time competing with foreign carriers and this is adding to the financial problems of the U.S. airlines serving overseas destinations. The American share in the total international market, according to the Air Transport Association, declined from 51.7 percent in 1972 to 48.7 percent in 1979, and the end is not in sight. By 1985, ATA forecasts, American carriers’ share of the international passenger business will shrink to 47.6 percent. This drop is credited to the fact that the weakness of the dollar is bringing more and more foreign travelers to the United States and, more often than not, they are flying their own national airlines. Moreover, a number of Americans are experimenting with foreign airlines to see if their service and food are superior to that available on U.S. carriers. At present, the United Kingdom and Japan are running about neck and neck as the leading overseas originating countries for visitors to the United States, although the UK visitor total is expected to exceed Japan’s in 1980. Of the top fifteen markets, Venezuela, rich from oil, is expected to show the greatest percentage rise in 1980.

Air passengers should expect nothing but bad news during the coming year where fares on domestic flights are concerned. Except for the mediumto longhaul routes where competition is intense—notably New York to the West Coast and New York to Florida—fares will continue to inch up. Already high fares have had an effect in driving down traffic, but it is in the nature of airline reasoning to ignore this fact. Fares on the North Atlantic route, between New York and European cities, are becoming highly unsettled, to the advantage of the traveler. Taking their cue from the pioneers in discount fares—World Airways and Lakersome of the European carriers, especially British Airways, are experimenting with bargain fares for the slack seasons. Based on transatlantic fares now prevailing, it is cheaper for American travelers to go from New York to London than it would be to fly to most of the Caribbean islands, or even from one American city to another.

As airplanes have become crowded and uncomfortable, so have the airports. John F. Kennedy and La Guardia in New York, O’Hare in Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles International offer scenes of turmoil. Newark is the least crow’ded airport in the New York area, but it offers mostly domestic flights and its passenger-traffic figures rose dramatically during the past year. But Philadelphia, Dulles in Washington, and Logan in Boston are seldom crowded, although their service frequency is severely limited when compared with JFK. Right now, and for perhaps many years to come, the traveler seeking international bargain fares and frequent departure schedules will have to bite the bullet and fight his way through the crowds at JFK.

The traveler of the eighties has little to comfort him, other than the fact that plane travel will be safe and speedy. But it will also be very, very expensive, and the times when a passenger can stretch his legs in front of his seat will become rare indeed. □