Why is the US aviation experience so awful?

Is the aviation experience in the United States so incredibly bad that the carriers have simply given up trying to compete with foreign carriers? Listening to a piece on HuffPo live titled "Can We Fix The Airlines?" yesterday evening that was the general feeling being bandied about. And after listening I couldn’t help but be even more frustrated at not being able to participate (I was invited) than when I had to turn down the initial invitation. If only to correct some of the glaring inaccuracies in the information being shared. Alas, it was not to be. And so I’m here, typing away instead.

To be fair, flying in coach domestically is rarely a great experience. But it really isn’t all that much more glorious on regional flights in Asia or Europe. You’re still on a narrow-body plane with 30-32" pitch. Some carriers have snacks and drinks; some do not. Some have IFE and some do not. Some flights are delayed or canceled and some are not. Just like flying in the USA. And even the "business class" experience in those areas isn’t all fun and games. In Asia there are plenty of narrow-body aircraft flying routes of a few hours or so. Food & beverage is better but the seats are generally similar to those on US carriers. In Europe it is the same on the meals but the seats are rather worse. Economy seats with a blocked middle and no extra pitch? Not really a premium product at all. The Middle Eastern carriers are more tightly squeezed across in coach than most US carriers in many cases; that’s not something that a few movies solves on a 12 hour flight in my experience.

Are the lounges nicer elsewhere? Sure. They are also quite a bit more exclusive in terms of gaining access. Turns out when you’re serving fewer passengers and they’re each paying more to access the facilities you can have slightly better amenities. In markets where they are competing directly (mostly Asia) the US carriers do offer more competitive lounge products. Still not incredible, but reasonable in the market.

There was also a decent amount of misinformation in the piece. Discussions of US government subsidies (EAS routes) made it sound like the funding is offered in significant business markets, not for random airports which wouldn’t be served otherwise. Suggestions of government subsidies for the Middle Eastern carriers is also an interesting topic when it comes up. No evidence, naturally, but the accusations are there. And there were the references to the "golden age" of air travel, neglecting the part where the amount of space one has today on a business or first class seat on long-haul flights is far greater than 30 years ago. But who’s counting?

There is very much a difference between the long-haul and short-haul markets, either in the US or elsewhere. US carriers haven’t been particularly ahead of the curve in cabin comfort for long-haul. That said, the original Continental BusinessFirst seat was ahead of the pack for business class when it was launched (a long time ago). And the US Airways Envoy Suite is the business class product that Cathay Pacific and American Airlines have coopted for their long-haul fleets. Not consistently ahead of the curve, but there are flashes of brilliance every now and then. And with some of the vaunted Asian and European carriers still offering angle-flat seats on comparable routes it isn’t particularly fair to suggest that the US is that far behind across the board.

For better or for worse, flying is simply transportation. And it is rarely luxurious, regardless of which carrier you’re booked on. I wish things were nicer, but I know I’m not going to pay for it. And neither are most other passengers. Such is life.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. It is not that is bad, the problem is that everything is average. Which US airline is a great airline? Which US airport is a great airport? etc

  2. The interest rates the Middle Eastern carriers (and other international ones) pay are far below levels in the industry, Delta’s interest rates on some of their 777-200LRs was around three times as much as the interest rate Emirates paid through the exim bank. Thats monthly discounts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per plane, if that isn’t a subsidy, I don’t know what is.

  3. The problem is that the in-air experience with US carriers would have to be significantly better than their overseas counterparts in order to compensate for the dreadful on-ground experience at US airports.

  4. I’m sure if EK or SQ had to operate on the brutally comeptitive TATL or US domestic market their product would reflect the prices paid too 🙂

  5. Russian airlines offer better food for free on short haul domestic flights than US airlines offer on just about any food. And that’s in the country where everyone is used to bringing their own food and walking to the plane. Oh, and the planes are not always maintained.

  6. I agree with Spike that the on-ground experience at US airports is particularly grim, with the TSA being the real culprit here.

    On board, I can only really compare the US with Europe. In Europe, there’s a big gap between the LCCs (eg EasyJet etc.) and the legacies (Lufthansa, BA etc.). The latter offer Business Class, but not First Class short haul. Generally cabins, whether in Y or C, are fairly modern and bright. In C, there’s generally quite a satisfactory light meal served and the middle seat is collapsed, giving extra width, but no extra leg room. I find this to be a satisfactory compromise – I don’t need the extra legroom in short haul. Upgrades are nearly non-existent in Europe, so the airlines give more as they know the customer has paid for it. Y on the legacies I find to be perfectly ok and fairly civilised. Perhaps the much tighter restrictions on carry-on luggage help here.

    In the US, there are plenty of domestic flights which are not really short haul – coast to coast, or Hawaii, so the seating has developed in a different way. But the cabins are often very tired and dingy. The food, if it appears at all in F, is very often extremely poor quality. In Y, the airlines operate at much the same level as European LCCs, charging for bags, throwing advertising at captive customers, and generally behaving in a fairly obnoxious manner. The stress of boarding is created by allowing people to bring their luggage on board with them. Finally, the culture of bringing food on board, particularly hot food which smells, makes it all the more unpleasant for others. As a generalisation, I think Americans are perhaps less used to/inclined to moderating certain selfish traits in their behavior in communal environments, which goes towards making the experience grimmer.

    Environment is key. My last two domestic flights have been on UA. The first, in E on an A319 was very pleasant. Newish, bright interior, quiet customers, out of view of any tv screens all went to a pleasant 2 hour flight. The second, in F on a 737, featured uncomfortable old fashioned seats, hideous decor, an FA who wanted to chit chat in a loud voice for all 50 minutes and a seat back screen which sprang to life for every advertisement, despite me trying to turn it off. The former is more typical of flying a legacy European airline, the latter of flying a European LCC but with bigger seats.

  7. I am a 1K with United and even as 1K I find the domestic US travel experience a very average, unfriendly, un-sepcial, dated, kind of depressing travel experience.

    Airpot check in at major airports like JFK, LAX and EWR is a terrible experience. The shoes off / TSA experience is terrible. Domestic and so called “First” lounges offered by AA DL and UA are stuck in the 80s with terrible decor, unfriendly staff, high school like food options. Boarding is a zoo. FA’s are old, grumpy and jaded. Gate staff likewise. Cabins are dingy and dated. Food is dated and common (Cheeseburgers and ice cream) and planes are generally old. OK rant over!

    I actually find the most pleasant domestic experience to be in Australia. Granted, it’s dominated by Virgin Australia and Qantas – and 2 LCCs Tiger and Jetstar, but for a nation with less people than California – it’s a world class service.

    Terminals are generally pleasant and modern. Check in, fate staff and even security are polite, young, eager and friendly. Security in a breeze with no need to take shoes off. Qantas and Virgin give lounge access to all busines pax. Qantas and Virgin lounges are truly world class with modern W like spaces, iMacs, barristas and huge food spreads. Boarding is a breeze (Aussies dont to much carry on) and planes are generally fresh, bright. Virgins cabins are like something from the future. FA’s are young, eager super friendly and polite – and even domestic coach gets free food. Business class comes with amazing food, newspapers and the like. The transcon premium services MEL/SYD-PER are almost international in standard with lie flats, 747 and A330 jets and chef inspired menus and barissta coffee.

    Of course, the Qantas and Virgin milage programs are nowhere near as generous as US ones.

    And I guess there is the rub

  8. The biggest differentiators is service. US staff are so abused by their employers and have so much belligerence it comes out in their work.

    Even the littlest things – take the on board announcements. United and AA bark at you as if it is your privilege to be on their plane. Asian airlines are much more courteous and welcoming.

  9. Misinformation from the Huffington Post? Shocking!

    But on a productive note, something that always strikes me when I fly with a US carrier (international) is the service from flight attendants being generally far below the service I receive from non-US carriers. I’m only discussing Economy class here, but I feel that the class and attention I receive from Lufthansa and Korean Airlines and similar carriers beats United or American hands down.

    On a recent trans-Atlantic United flight, my seat partner was essentially ridiculed for complaining about his headphone jack not working. The overweight, older, and very weary looking FA mimed fixing the jack with a corkscrew, chuckled, and then walked away, not to return. Later, when the same seat mate mentioned he had requested a kosher meal, a different FA told him that they had given them all away already. He asked for a vegetarian meal, and they also didn’t have any of these. Then the FA left, again not to return. Said seat mate eventually had to get up and find another FA just to get himself a side salad for dinner.

    All this after a nearly two hour delay, when you’d think the airlines would be more sensitive to customer comfort. I was on a redemption flight, so I’m not about to complain, but this guy had shelled out nearly $1,200 for a last-minute RT.

    Was this discussed? I know several Asian airlines have very stringent FA-selection processes and training, which is probably too extreme and certainly wouldn’t fly in the US, but you can’t deny the improvement in service.

  10. I couldn’t agree more – the “Can We Fix the Airlines,” piece was tough to listen to and generalized some completely inaccurate info. Spike has a good point about airports, although the TSA is the record keeper there.

    One additional point that’s worth including is the silver lining of multiple resources for flyers today. While flying in couch domestically is rarely “great,” it can be a better experience if you’re armed with the information you need. If flyers empower themselves to find the best experience available to them at their price point and schedule – then they’ll know what they are getting into before they jump onboard. There’s always variables that are out of our control as travelers but the US aviation experience doesn’t “suck” as Huffo’s video so gleefully stated. We have the tools to cherry pick our way to a better flight and optimize our experience (like ours at Routehappy). And information on things like seat comfort, which Skift ran a piece on last week, and in-flight amenities that make all the difference in the world. Yes, sometimes they cost more, but decide if it’s worth it beforehand so you’re not the one scowling at the flight attendant next time you fly.

    And, come on HuffPo, do they simply not having crying babies on flights in Europe?

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