Air Travel and Leisure

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Twenty-first-century Americans, long blasé about constant technological innovations, accept flying as a necessary fact of life, despite the persisting small percentage who still refuse to board a plane. A century ago there was no airline industry, even though the military made use of aircraft in its operations by 1910. Beginning with the 1920s, with the ranks of trained pilots swelled by aviator veterans of World War I, flying was increasingly used to deliver the U.S. mail, to manage crops, and to provide thrill seekers with excitement at state fairs. When a particularly plucky midwestern postal pilot named Charles Lindbergh flew his Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, a veritable craze began for organized passenger flights.

The Demand for Flying Increases

From these small beginnings, plane repair, airport, and cargo facilities were constructed as the necessary infrastructure for the global corporate industry that existed at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Yet, it was not until the 1960s that a mass market for passenger travel emerged. Among the confluence of factors at the critical juncture that created the ubiquitous and heavily used industry were the introduction in 1963 of the Boeing 727 jet passenger plane—the veritable workhorse of the industry that remains in service on some flights even today; the accelerating growth of personal income and general prosperity after the 1950s recession that created a mass consumer and leisure industry market; advances in computers, such as the IBM 360, that revolutionized booking, scheduling, and accounting; and the rise of a mass tourist industry aimed at specialized domestic destinations, such as Las Vegas and Miami, along with foreign locations in the Caribbean and Europe.

By the year 2000, a mature air travel industry consisting of numerous carriers and almost infinite destinations carried over 700,000 passenger trips domestically. To be sure, frequent business travel comprises a significant percentage of total journeys. However, the bulk of passenger flights take place because of the increasing use of flying for vacations, family purposes, and short-duration leisure activities such as ski, gambling, and golf excursions to specialized destinations.

From that peak, the events of 11 September 2001 made cutbacks in travel inevitable. Passenger trips, after dropping off drastically immediately after the terror attacks, rose again, but in 2003 they were still at only about 80 percent of their peak levels. Hardest hit was the international tourist industry. Recreation, tourism, and leisure activities that once involved flights to foreign destinations began to exploit opportunities close to home. In the summer of 2003, for example, tourist visits to Alaska and Hawaii were more popular than trips outside U.S. boundaries.

The mass market for leisure and recreation depends greatly on the ability of consumers to access particular locations by air. Gamblers cycle in and out of McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas, for example, at a level of more than 20 million arrivals a year, and spend an average of three to four days in town. Ski resorts in Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado cater to short-term visitors who jet in and out when both snow and flying conditions are attractive. Even avid golfers and fishermen or hunters take advantage of low fares to squeeze in a few days of recreation in places such as the Southwest or Alaska, locations known for their attractiveness. Added to these specialized recreational activities are the many packaged junkets put together by the airline and tourist industries to attract short-term vacationers with a week or less of leisure time for fully organized getaways at resorts. In short, highly efficient jet travel on planes that carry large numbers of passengers to various specialized destinations has helped to create a mass consumer industry of recreation and leisure that combines vacations with sport activities for all seasons. Even after the effects of 11 September, the basic pattern of frequent air travel trips to pursue tourism, recreation, and leisure activities remains in place.

Changes in the Air Travel Industry

Until the 1960s, travel by air was occasional for most Americans. Flights in propeller-driven planes were long, dull, and uncomfortable. The planes were especially prone to the effects of bad weather. A stormy trip experience could make even the most willing air passenger leery of flying again. The introduction of jetliners in the 1960s changed commercial aviation into a mass industry. Effects were not limited to the success of the Boeing 727. During the 1970s, a further technological and engineering innovation occurred. Huge-capacity, wide-bodied passenger jets were introduced, including the Boeing 747, the Lockheed L-1011, and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. These planes could carry many more passengers per trip in even greater comfort, and they made travel by air cheaper and more convenient. Wide-bodied jets also transformed airports, enabling them to add to the flying experience. They required greater parking space at the gates of terminals and more taxiing space out on the runways. To accommodate the wide-bodies, terminals were stretched and reshaped through renovation and the building of new facilities. Terminals now had room between the expansive corridors of gates for shops and restaurants. Airports became malls, destination places for dining and shopping.

The change in airport design created a new experience for international travelers. Duty-free shopping at the terminals became almost as important as the trips to foreign destinations themselves. Airports such as Frankfurt International in Germany and Schiphol International outside of Amsterdam, Holland, turned into consumer destinations in their own right. Schiphol, for example, has over forty different outlet stores, hundreds of shops, a movie theater, and even a gambling casino. Although the European Union consolidation and the introduction of free trade zones within Europe eliminated the appeal of duty-free shopping for domestic residents, the activity has remained a strong draw for citizens of the United States, Japan, and other countries with consumers known for their frequent trips abroad.

An infrastructure for mass and frequent flying that existed in the early 2000s also provided people with another change in the way they experienced travel from the period before 1970. People who flew considerable distances encountered the phenomenon of "space-time compression." To cite one example, a person enmeshed in the mundane tasks of everyday life in New York City could, at noontime, leave work with a set of golf clubs, take a taxi to the airport, and fly down to a resort in Florida in time to complete nine holes of golf that same day. With an earlier start, this same person could play nine holes in southern California instead. As these examples show, leisure and tourist destinations became simply an extension of people's lived space. They joined the locations of work and home in the experiential world as places where people could visit almost as easily as the more mundane sites of their daily lives. Obsessive theatergoers, for example, often take advantage of quick trips to London in order to see a play or two without any other goal in mind. In the most extreme case of space-time compression, individuals may fly from one city, where they maintain a home, to another, where they work during the same day. A small percentage of professionals are "bicoastal," that is, they maintain homes in cities on both coasts, usually Manhattan and Los Angeles.

The mass industry of air travel also has its downside, as all flyers can attest. Flight delays, overcrowding, overbooking, and cancellations are but some of the incidents that traumatize passengers. Perhaps the worst experience for people seeking leisure activities involves the cancellation of flights en route, thereby causing the disruption of vacation plans. Consumers on ski, gambling, fishing, or golf excursions who become stranded in out-of-town airports may discover that all their leisure time will be lost in transit. Often it is the unpredictability with which airlines switch and/or cancel flights that is the most disturbing aspect of this ordeal.

Other difficulties emerged following the events of 11 September 2001. Increased security at airports meant considerably longer check-in times and increased scrutiny of baggage, a change especially aggravating for golfers and skiers carrying their equipment. Once a relatively quick although stressful activity, by late 2001, checking in required a major allocation of time that invariably cut into the period devoted to vacation and leisure travel. Despite these and other negatives, however, tourism, recreation, and leisure activities require frequent air service, and flying remains the best way to schedule vacation breaks from the entanglements of everyday life.

By the end of the twentieth century, the domestic air travel industry handled 27 million takeoffs. That figure was expected to increase by almost one-third in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Although dampened by the acts of terrorism, passenger trips may reach the 1 billion mark by the year 2012. Mass travel of this magnitude will severely strain the already stressed infrastructure of the industry. When trips reached their peak in the year 2000, Congress was mobilized to address the crush of consumer complaints against the system. As peak flying declined due to terrorism, some of the measures that were contemplated were pushed to the back burner of legislative action. Yet, the system was still grossly overtaxed; when mass flying expands, which it is sure to do in the future, the same problems of overcrowding, cancellations, and general system failures will exist.

Passenger Rights Gain in Popularity

In 1999, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced legislation aimed at codifying the rights of commercial passengers on domestic trips. Later that year, Congressman Bud Shuster (R-Pennsylvania), the powerful chairman of the House Transportation Committee, drafted passenger rights legislation of his own. By the summer of 2003, neither of these bills had moved through the Congress. Should predictions of further increases in the frequency and volume of air passenger trips turn out to be true, air travelers will no doubt renew their pressure on government officials to revisit this legislation. At the same time, commercial airlines have released voluntary reforms of their own to address some of the more serious passenger concerns. Congressman Shuster's bill called for compensation to passengers whenever airline companies held people in planes for more than two hours. Absent approved legislation of this kind, airlines have no obligations to passengers who are delayed in this fashion, but they have announced policies that express concern for travelers trapped in these circumstances, and they have publicly stated that every effort will be made to make passengers comfortable in the future. Compensation for such inconveniences seems unlikely. Airlines have begun to follow policies aimed at being more honest with passengers, at providing them with more information whenever problems arise, and at assisting passengers who are caught in a system breakdown affecting one airline with suitable and timely accommodations on other airlines that are still operating. Because our domestic air travel infrastructure has not been stressed in the way it was before 11 September, it is difficult to assess how voluntary policies enacted by carriers have improved the air travel experience. However, the problems with mass air transportation have not disappeared. Along with the many benefits of rapid and convenient travel, its many nuisances will also mark this experience for years to come.

See also: Automobiles and Leisure; Tourism


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Mark Gottdiener