A Valentine for Airline Professionals

Regular readers of this blog will note this post is a departure from my usual commentary on various hard realities of the airline industry.

I flew through Kennedy Airport a few weeks ago, and walking between gates I saw, smiled at, and celebrated all kinds of people whose lives and jobs were made better by the jet airplane. I saw the people we commonly call business travelers, for whom the airplane helps them get deals of all kinds done, improve their skills, or share their expertise with others - the flow of human capital. I saw lots of visitors, those from elsewhere coming to New York for fun and discovery, and New Yorkers and others flying away, to ski in Colorado, enjoy the sun in Mexico, and many other places. I saw students and others for who the airliner is the way to get back to school or across the world to things they could never learn on campus. And I saw a young man wearing tags that identified him as a refugee. For decades, the plane has helped tens of millions of people find a better life in a country not of their birth. And looking below the windows of a big jet, I saw on the ramp a cargo container that might hold a range of high-value, just-in-time, and perishable products - for example, Valentine's Day flowers for your sweetheart.

So today I'd like to send a valentine to U.S. airline employees, from Hawai'i to Maine, and from Alaska to Florida. It's a valentine for pilots and flight attendants, airport teams, mechanics, call-center staff, managers and administrators.

>> It's a valentine for keeping passengers safe. This achievement is nothing short of phenomenal. The most meaningful yardstick for safety experts, rate of fatal accidents per 100,000 departures, is such a tiny number (far to the right of the decimal point) that it's meaningless. So to give that measure meaning, we flip it over. Using U.S. airline data for 2007 through 2015 (nine years, the latter year estimated), it works like this: if you flew one flight a day, 365 days a year, it would be almost 120,000 years before you would have a 50-50 probability of dying in the crash of a U.S.-registered airliner. Those data include the last fatal accident, in 2009 - there have been no deaths in more than seven years.

>> It's a valentine for keeping air travel reliable. For the 12 months ending November 2015, 79.7% of U.S. airline flights arrived on time. For naysayers who proclaim "flights are always late," the fact is nearly 4 of every 5 flights arrives on schedule. And for people who think airlines cancel lots of flights, here are the facts: in November, even with the onset of winter weather, U.S. carriers canceled just 1% of scheduled flights. And Delta's November number was so small, it rounded down to zero; indeed, last year Delta flew 118 consecutive days without a single canceled flight. Not one.

>> It's a valentine for keeping it inexpensive. Grumpy people carp about prices, but last year, U.S. airfares dropped 5%. I just did a little shopping, New York to Miami, about two months from now, on April 12. American offered a choice of 9 nonstop flights (3 hours and 3 minutes) for $80. Amtrak? $118 for a bumpy ride of almost 31 hours. And a little history might help: 50 years ago, the cheapest fare between Minneapolis/St. Paul (where I grew up) and Dallas/Fort Worth (where I worked for most of my airline career) was, when adjusted for inflation, almost six times higher than today. Sure, 45 years ago, you got a little meal and a pillow, but were those worth six times more?

>> And it's a valentine for keeping it friendly and welcoming, despite lots of challenges outside airline control, and despite increasing incivility. It's not fair to blame a flight attendant for a weather or ATC delay, but it happens all the time. And I often think that the biggest complainers about flights are people who are unhappy that their seatmate is someone who could not afford to fly 25 or 30 years ago. Fact is, during my three decades in the airline business, we have democratized a mode of travel once available only to the well-to-do. That's a huge accomplishment, worthy of a big valentine.

Many people take flight for granted, and they shouldn't. Happy Valentine's Day, U.S. airline people, thank you, and keep doing what you're doing!