TUNG’S TRAVEL BLOG: Why we need to unlock the skies. . . again

“We welcome you to the friendly skies,” the head air hostess  of my United Airlines flight said.

Yeah, right. The skies are anything but friendly.

The airlines begin attacking you right from the curbside. Want to check in a bag? If you aren’t flying Southwest, that’ll run you in the neighborhood of $25 for the first, and $35 for the next.

Want two more inches of legroom? $78 on my flight from LAX to Newark.

Even putting your luggage into the overhead compartment is a special-charge luxury now – $10 for “priority boarding.”

Has the experience improved?

Well, the food still tastes like cardboard. Just kidding. You don’t even get free food nowadays. The cold mozzarella-and-tomato hoagie you’re staring at? That’ll be $8.

Even peanuts are not guaranteed anymore. I’m not sure why they announce the “beginning of open cabin services” because there is no cabin service.

While the flying experience is being hollowed out, so are the rewards accounts. I fly a lot for a 17-year old. So imagine my surprise when I discovered the changes in United’s rewards policy. It will now take me double the number of points to fly to Hong Kong.

If rewards programs are degenerating, at least planes are getting better, right? Nope. I flew on “New Generation 737” from LAX to Newark. What was new about the experience? Thinner padding, unstable chairs, no televisions, no radio, and a change in shade of light from yellowish-white to baby blue.

I think the U.S. airline industry is one of those few sectors of the economy that have actually gotten worse with time – not better.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Indeed, around the world hundreds of millions of people are being introduced to the wonders of air travel from locations as diverse as Doha, Qatar, and Dalian, China, and they love the experience.

When I traveled from Shenzhen to Shanghai last summer, I saw a mirror image of what air travel used to be like.

No body scanners, no aggrieved TSA agents, no charges for first-and second-checked bags. On the planes meals were complimentary, even in economy class, although the flight was only two hours long.

Indeed, it’s not just the short-haul flights by foreign carriers that are better, but the long-haul ones are finer as well.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a person who would rather fly a domestic carrier than a foreign one. Not when Singapore Airlines offers hot towel service to economy passengers, Cathay Pacific provides almost limitless entertainment options and ANA (All Nippon Airways) gives out sushi in coach.

Combine the better entertainment and food with a staff that genuinely looks like they want to be there, and the entire experience seems to elevate itself to a new echelon, one where you want to fly. (Singapore Airlines is so famous for their flight attendants, they are regarded as a quasi-national treasure.)

So I call upon Congress and the President to fully unlock our skies. Allow foreign carriers to fly domestic flights, specifically when those flights are continuations of existing routes (for example, adding a LAX to Chicago O’Hare extension to existing services.)

This would cause domestic carriers to fight for our business, either offering a competitive product at a competitive price.

The CEO of Delta Airlines recently asked legislators to increase the hurdles for foreign carriers. But that is not what the market needs. American carriers have used the legislative tools at their fingertips as a crutch and as a result have become pathetic.

America’s airlines have used plenty of government help in the past. Instead of crying wolf, they should up their game.

In the meantime, these are not friendly skies indeed.


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