February 15, 2018
IT’S WEIRD, when you think about it. More people are flying than ever before, but they’re doing so in smaller and smaller planes. The average commercial jet holds about a third fewer passengers than it did thirty years ago.
When I was a kid, widebody planes were the norm on many domestic flights. Coast-to-coast trips were always on DC-10s, L-1011s or 747s. Even on shorter trips, 250 or 300-seaters were common. I grew up in Boston (where I live still), and American Airlines flew DC-10s between here and Chicago, Los Angeles, and Bermuda; Eastern used L-1011s to Orlando; Delta L-1011s would take you to Bermuda, Atlanta, and Miami. Northwest used DC-10s between Boston and Minneapolis, Detroit, and at one point Washington, D.C. The first Airbus, the A300, was a widebody plane designed specifically for short and medium-haul routes. Eastern operated the A300 on its famous Shuttle between Boston, New York and Washington: a 250-seater on a half-hour flight.
Nowadays, on pretty much all of these routes, you’ll find yourself on a much smaller A319, A320, or in many cases a regional jet. The Boeing 737, a plane conceived in the 1960s for flights of around 300 miles, is used on routes to Hawaii, South America, and even to Europe.
What’s happened is two things. First, the U.S. airline industry has fragmented. There are more airlines flying between more cities. (And, starting in 1979, Deregulation meant that carriers could no longer fly around huge planes with only half of the seats taken and still make money.) The bigger factor, though, is the way these airlines have come to use frequency as a selling point. In a lot of ways, frequency of flights has become the holy grail of airline marketing. Why offer three daily nonstops to LAX using 300-seat planes, when you can offer six flights using 150-seat planes? And so here we are: there are city-pairs all across America connected by a dozen, fifteen, or even twenty flights a day — all in narrow-body jets carrying fewer than 200 people.
One obvious downside to this evolution (devolution is maybe the better word), is a decrease in cabin comfort. An overbooked 737 starts to feel very claustrophobic after that third or fourth hour. But worse, it’s clogged up our airspace and airports. Sure, there are more flights to more cities. There also are more delays.
At no time is the peril of this strategy more exposed than when the weather goes bad. In years past, snow or thunderstorms meant moderate delays and perhaps a cancellation or two. When I flew regional planes in the early 1990s, I remember trudging to work through six inches of fresh snow, and departing on time. These days, a half inch of powder or a line of cumulonimbus brings the entire system to its knees. This is especially so in the northeastern United States, a.k.a. the “northeast corridor,” which is so packed with planes that delays are common even on clear days. There’s no slack, no logistical breathing room. Add a little rain, ice or snow, and everything snaps. One day last winter, it took me ten hours to fly from Boston to New York — nine of them spent either waiting in the terminal, as flights were cancelled and departure times progressively rolled back, or sitting in endless de-icing and taxiway queues.
We hear a lot about the need to upgrade and modernize our air travel control system. Indeed we should. But although this will help the problem, it’s not going to solve it. This isn’t merely airspace issue; it’s just as much an airports issue. At the end of the proverbial day, there are only so many planes that can take off or land on a runway in a given amount of time, and when the weather closes in that number shrinks. Short of building new runway, or whole new airports, the only real solution is for airlines to better rationalize their schedules and capacity models.
This trend might be, if only barely for now, swinging back in the other direction. Carriers are at last starting to wean themselves away from their berserk obsession with regional jets, and are at least paying lip service to the idea of decreasing frequencies and increasing aircraft size. Several times in the past month, stories like this one have popped into the news.
Frankly, they have little choice. We’re at a breaking point, and a strategy of flooding the skies with more and more small jets is simply unsustainable.