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10 Ways Air Travel Has Gone Downhill

I tend not to be prone to nostalgia. Memory is an unreliable thing, and for every great memory you cherish (summer family car trips!), there is almost certainly one you are suppressing (no air-conditioning! Carsick sibling!).

So when I hear about how great air travel used to be, I am immediately skeptical, if not outright dismissive. Legendary full “free” airline meals in all classes of service is the perfect example; if that was so great, how do you reconcile the corresponding anti-legend of horrible airplane food? It’s not possible. The old days weren’t necessarily the good old days.

And some of the stuff that folks like to say was so special about air travel in the past seem somewhat confounding — everyone had to dress in their finest clothes? Going through Newark airport in July in a three-piece suit when all you want to do is go to Disney World is not something to which most folks would want to see us return. It sounds awful — not to mention that it is a good indicator that air travel was available only to the very well-off. I agree that many travelers today could use better manners and sometimes better clothes, but travel can do wonders for people of all socioeconomic situations, and a lot is lost when only the best dressed and most moneyed get to see the world.

All of that said, airline service has taken such a severe nosedive of late that it seems time to take stock of what we have lost that is of real value. What was really better back in the day? There are in fact things I would take back in a second if we could turn back the clock, and I don’t think it is nostalgic to think so.

Below are 10 things that were better about air travel a few decades ago. In a couple of weeks, I’ll turn the tables and pick 10 things that are way better about air travel today — stay tuned.

1. Dropping Off and Meeting at the Gate

Even I feel nostalgia welling up a bit when I think about this one. It is the kind of thing that would spark feelings — the idea that a trip to and through the airport might be a social experience with the best and most important people in your life, possibly at an important part of your life (like leaving for college, heading off to a new job or traveling abroad for the first time).

Today the notion that someone would willingly accompany you through the airport when they are not traveling is almost absurd, but it was a common occurrence not so long ago. Airport goodbyes and reunions were stock scenes in romantic movies and television shows, and the person left behind always stayed behind at the gate to watch the plane take off.

You can still have an emotional reunion in the arrivals hall, but these days the drop-off has lost a little romance. Now your beloved is more likely to shove your stuff out the door at a curbside packed with cars and angry travelers, trying to say a noisy, rushed goodbye without being killed by people driving by on cell phones.

2. Less Time at the Airport

Not only could your friends or family come with you to the gate, but they also didn’t have to get you to the airport several hours before your flight. Without massive and sometimes poorly managed security lines, you could arrive a reasonable time ahead of your flight, relax in the airport and board the plane just a few minutes before pulling away from the gate. Now, between snaking security lines and a lengthy boarding process with everyone clawing for every free inch of overhead bin space, you’ll likely commit several hours of your day to a flight before the plane even takes off.

3. Bigger Seats and More Legroom

Even if you are a petite person who sleeps extremely well on planes, there just isn’t enough room to be comfortable in any conventional sense of the word. As the average American gets larger, the average airplane seat is getting smaller, and airlines are packing them tighter together.

4. More Empty Seats

You can’t blame the airlines for working hard on capacity controls — full planes make more money, and empty planes are financially disastrous because it costs a ton of money to put a plane in the air. But it’s hard not to miss the times when entire rows of empty seats were common enough that smart travelers were tempted (and advised by folks like me) to book middle seats in the hope that other travelers looking for an aisle or window seat might avoid a row with someone already in the middle. As a result, you could end up with the entire row to yourself. When is the last time you saw an empty aisle or window seat, let alone an entire row?

5. Free Food

I know I mention this above as a strong candidate for selective memory among folks yearning for good old days that didn’t really exist, but I still miss having a little extra bite to eat on mid-length flights. Sure, it wasn’t all that great, but neither is airport food (Taco Bell, anyone?) or the dull, overpriced snacks you can purchase in flight these days — and at least the old stuff was included in the cost of your ticket.

6. Free Booze

Talk about a mixed bag — relaxing with a drink on a long flight sounds like a great idea until you learn how some of the deleterious effects of alcohol are exacerbated on a flight — dehydration, restless sleep and, especially, increased intoxication. Drinking on planes is not really my thing, and for sure plenty of the less savory airborne passenger altercations have been fueled by alcohol, but enough folks do miss the days you could get a fairly well-made drink shortly after takeoff that it seems worth a mention.

7. Problems Were Easier (and Cheaper) to Fix

It wasn’t so long ago that flight issues were generally pretty easy and inexpensive to resolve. Late for your flight? No problem, we’ll put you on another flight, maybe even another airline. Need to change your flight? It used to be that you could walk up to the gate agent of a competing airline and explain what happened, and he or she would honor your ticket, leaving it to the airlines to sort out the money later — without exorbitant change fees. Need to cancel? If you have a good reason, it will do.

Today, almost no good reason will do. And even as airlines merge almost relentlessly, you would think they might work together a bit to get you home. For example, when United and Continental merged a few years ago, countless problems ensued, usually with regard to customer service — the new, larger airline had massive issues with overbooking, baggage handling, refunds and even taking care of pets. You would think that fixing problems as one carrier would be better than doing so across two, but instead, they blame not being able to help you on — you guessed it — the merger.

8. No Baggage Fees

In some respects, I am sort of okay with baggage fees. I understand why people with multiple bags that need handling and weigh as much as my 7-year-old might have to pay a little bit more for a service from which only they benefit. Otherwise everyone else is subsidizing their luggage, which isn’t great.

The problem comes when airlines enforce baggage rules almost not at all, so we end up having no overhead space for people who bring massive bags as carry-ons. If you follow the rules and check your bag, by paying the fee you end up subsidizing the rule breakers. It’s completely backward.

Otherwise, I barely have to explain this one. First there were fees for oversized or irregularly shaped bags, then it was second bags, then it was first bags, and now there are even fees for carry-ons. Amazon can ship you a full-sized, 105-pound portable basketball system with a 53-inch backboard for free in two days’ time, but the airlines charge you $25 for a piece of luggage when you are already paying them hundreds of dollars for a seat.

9. Few Other Add-On Fees

The last few years have seen the addition of change fees, seat selection fees, upgrade fees, fees to book by phone with a real person, fees to go through a reasonable security line, unaccompanied minor fees, inflight entertainment fees, headphone fees … even fees for a blanket and a pillow! You will pay to sleep on a plane; beat that.

10. No Airport Security

This one is so obvious, and we talk about it so much, that it almost isn’t worth going into. The massive and often dysfunctional bureaucracy that cropped up to make us “safer” has mostly made us more miserable and distrustful of the very same system, which has somewhat accurately been deemed mere “security theater” by some travelers. Whether we’re actually safer now is hard to judge, but there’s no denying that things used to be a lot more convenient.

If there other facets of air travel back in the day that you still miss, please share them in the comments. And stay tuned for our report in a few weeks on 10 things that are much better now. (E-tickets, anyone?)

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