The True Cost of Flying

Just about anyone who has flown at all over the last few years will tell you that the data on flight delays highlighted in this Freakonomics post is not at all shocking:

The cost of air travel is going up, and airlines are counting on us not to notice.

I’m not talking about airfares, which have actually declined in real terms over the past decade, despite inching up in the past few years. And I don’t mean the ancillary fees to check a bag, check in at the airport, speak to a live agent, or pick your seat, though these, too, are going up. Instead, I’m talking about the cost of delays and schedule disruptions that waste travelers’ time and force them to travel earlier to their destinations or risk missing important meetings and events. ..

Researchers at MIT and George Mason University estimate that delayed and canceled flights imposed on passengers an aggregate delay of 28,500 years in 2007. The cost of these delays, and of risk-averting behavior like traveling early to destinations, was estimated at $15.3 billion, a startling number that accounts for the opportunity cost of time but doesn’t measure the consequences of missing critical appointments like weddings or job interviews.

Indeed, on a business trip to San Diego this past June I ended up missing my connections in both directions and spending the night in Dallas both times. The trip out was a weather issue so the airline just rebooked me for a flight the next morning and I was on my own to find accomodations. The trip back was a mechanical issue and the airline paid for a night at a Dallas hotel. Both times I missed appointments becuase of the delayed flights and missed connections. Sadly, I think this is becoming more and more common. The data would seem to back this feeling up:

Airlines are increasingly consolidating service at the nation’s largest airports, according to areport this summer from MIT. Meanwhile, the number of large hubs has declined from 20 to 10, even as the number of flights channeled into large hubs has grown 75 percent.

This means an ever-larger share of passengers must make connections in an ever-fewer number of airports, including those in the most congested airspace in the country. If weather, security, or accidents halt or slow operations at one of those airports, effects can reverberate throughout the system, as late-arriving aircraft delay flights downstream elsewhere around the country. United passengers should find this particularly alarming as five of the airline’s hubs rank among the six worst airports in the country for on-time departures.


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