Congress has immersed itself in a nettlesome debate over the advertised cost of air travel — whether ticket sellers should be forced to display the full cost of a ticket with all taxes and fees, or, as airlines desire, they should be able to separate add-ons and only show the base price. Competing bills in the House and the Senate embrace these two very different approaches. Prickly rhetoric has flown back and forth across the Capitol. Each side claims the mantle of “transparency,” and asserts that the best interest of the consumer is their principal motivation.
A couple of overlooked questions here: Is Congress even trying to fix the right problem? Has anyone actually asked consumers what’s most important to them when it comes to air travel?
The U.S. Travel Association did. The results are surprising.
Surveyed air travelers made it clear that while the price of flying is certainly on their minds, their top worries lie elsewhere. The number one overall concern: delays and cancellations, named by 39 percent of flyers as the worst aspect of flying.
The second-most cited gripe about flying is indeed a pricing issue: the fees imposed by airlines for things such as checked bags, select seating and priority boarding (26 percent). However, it is notable that these are entirely distinct from government-imposed taxes and fees, which were named by less than 1 percent of travelers as a top concern — behind such responses as the security screening process (8 percent), terrorism (3 percent) and “no concerns” (6 percent).
In other words, the air travel bills creating a stir in Congress attempt to address a problem that is identified by about one out of every 100 air travel consumers as a central concern.
Interestingly, the issues that contribute to travelers’ most-cited worry — delays and cancellations, which afflict 1 out of 5 U.S. flights — have not exactly flown under the radar. The chief culprit there is the infrastructure that supports flying, such as airports and the air traffic control system. Congress has for years been warned about the grim and worsening outlook for these aging facilities.
The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that 27 major airports won’t have enough capacity to meet demand in the next 10 years. At JFK and Newark alone, this will cost the U.S. economy $6 billion annually by 2016. Air traffic control is completely reliant upon technology that first entered widespread use during World War II. “NextGen,” the project that is supposed to gradually upgrade and replace those systems, is almost a decade behind schedule due to mismanagement and spotty congressional appropriations. The U.S. pioneered and long dominated commercial air travel, but the most recent global rankings did not place a single U.S. airport in the top 50.
It bears mentioning that the No. 3 greatest concern raised in our traveler survey — the safety of flying (11 percent) — is closely linked to those infrastructure issues as well.
Even more troubling is that air travel demand continues to grow. 210 million passengers are expected to take to the skies during the summer travel season — up 1.5 percent from last year, and the highest figure since the recession. The added strain upon a system that is struggling at current capacity levels is a recipe not only for increased consumer frustration, but also for outright damage to the U.S. economy.
The reason: travel creates economic activity, and our survey indicates the upward trajectory in travel could and should be even steeper. Travelers avoided 38 million trips in 2013 because of hassles throughout the aviation system. These forgone trips ultimately cost the economy $27.2 billion in travel spending, with several sectors downstream taking the brunt of the losses, including $9.5 billion in airfares, $5.8 billion in hotels, $3.4 billion in restaurant/food services, $2.8 billion in other transportation costs such as taxi or car rental, and $5.7 billion in spending on other travel goods and services such as amusement and recreation activities.
Flight cancellations also cost travelers $8.5 billion in time lost, missed connections and missed travel activities. The total: $35.7 billion in losses to the U.S. economy as a result of aviation inefficiencies.
Conversely, 60 percent of survey respondents said they would take on average 2.6 more trips in a year if our air travel system had fewer headaches — a potential windfall in economic activity and the resulting tax revenues.
Transparency for consumers is a thoroughly laudable goal. But other aspects of air travel policy not only are of greater importance to flyers, but have quantifiably higher stakes for the U.S. economy. As lawmakers consider policies governing ticket purchasing, let’s hope they also seek to address the much more exigent problem of aviation modernization.
Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.