At the very best of times the flying public considers the airline industry illogical and frustrating and almost always an annoyance (akin to how botulism, pokes in the eye with sharp sticks, and Brittany Spears are annoying). While this is certainly not aimed at making anyone love the airlines (easier to make folks love chewing tinfoil), it is here to clear up some points, reveal some inner workings and dispel some myths.

Distance, number of passengers, price of gas; none of these, including many other logical factors, have anything to do with ticket prices. Prices are based on what the market will bear. Thatís it. Itís a profit deal. If they could charge you a thousand dollars to fly you to the other side of the airport, they would. If they have to drop a New York to L.A. fare to $100 to compete, theyíll do that, too (there is a minimum number of tickets that must be available to trip the critical mass and send everyone into a price war, though). Also, there are limited numbers of those good deals. They may only sell 10% of the tickets with the super fare and the rest are outrageously priced. Itís what the market will bear. If gas prices rise and one of the major airlines decides to eat the loss, the others will, too.

Changing flights uses up resources and in the past the airlines were willing to absorb these costs (reservations agents have to take time from selling new tickets to adjust ones already sold), but those days are over with most carriers. Additionally, the flight you choose to change to may have no competition (you canít go to another airline doing the same thing and get a better price), so they can price it higher. Say you know that one flight is terribly expensive (now you know why), but a much less convenient one (via Kamchatka, say) is dirt-cheap. The day after you book the cheap one, you decide to switch to the other (you lost a game of Risk the night prior and it all hinged on Kamchatka, souring your desire to fly through there). Itís going to cost you what it would have if youíd originally booked it, plus the change fee.

It all comes down to balancing the factors that go into travel, mainly time and cost.

Low Cost Carriers v. Mainline Carriers
With the growing number of discount seats out there and the fact that a couple airlines are making money hand over fist (and have never had a losing year), people often wonder why all airlines donít just go to the same model. Most Low Cost Carriers use the direct method: they find routes that would be profitable (by seeing who flies where on the Mainline Carriers) and set up point to point flights (Jacksonville to Nashville for example). If all carriers were to follow this example (and only fly the profitable lines) 60% of the cities serviced today by carriers would see that service disappear entirely. The mainlines use the hub and spoke system in order to service more cities and keep unprofitable lines open for years in order to build brand loyalty and even due to deals made with the host cities. How many people in Sheboygan, WI want to go to Bucksnort, TN?

In general, employee salaries are lower than those of different industries with similar functions. This is, in large part, due to the benefits of an airline employee, namely the ability to fly free anywhere your airline goes (the other benefits are comparable). This benefit is contingent upon the availability of unsold seats, however, and with the higher loads generated by lower prices, these are becoming more and more scarce. You may be able to wing out to Hawaii for the weekend, but you still have to be at work on Monday (though weekends and holidays have no meaning in most of the jobs, as the airline operates 24/7/365). They donít take the excuse that you got bumped. Not here? Youíre fired. Good luck getting back. Okay, itís usually not that extreme for the first offense, but I had to tap The Donald).

Pilot pay, especially, has been blown into mythical proportions. Several Senators have decried the level of pay collected by ďthe average airline pilotĒ and usually quote the figure of $225,000. Wrong. Pilots come with different skill levels and I generated this chart to illustrate some points (this is only one path, there are also ways to gain experience through cargo flying and military flying):
Level____________Job____________Exp (yrs)__________Pay
1_______________Student________0-3 ______________$0 (it costs from $30-80/hr to fly)
2_______________Instuctor _______2-5______________$12k/yr avg
4_______________First Officer_____10-25_____________$25k-160k/yr

Those levels can be cut up into much finer sections, but are good enough here. Once you get to Level 3, you can call yourself an airline pilot. Youíre probably flying a regional jet and feeling pretty good about your new Ray Ban sunglasses. This assumes you started at age 20 (60 is the mandatory retirement age).

The pay for levels 4 and 5 look pretty good, but havenít changed in over 30 years (if you compare todayís pay with that of 1974 in todayís dollars). A senior captain used to be on par with Doctors, but now make about half what the average Doctor makes (but doesnít send most of his salary to medical malpractice insurance).

There is also the myth that pilots only work 80 hours per month. The truth is that they only get PAID for 80 hours a month. When the doors are closed and the plane starts moving back, the clock starts. When the plane arrives and the door opens, the clock stops. Pilots are generally away from home about half the time (which is what you do as a pilot) and the day can last anywhere from 3 to 16 hours. Flight attendants are similarly clocked, but can (and usually do) work longer hours and spend more time away in order to increase their income.

This is in no way a defense of the industry or any of the carriers. There are several airlines I hate to fly on and do so only when threatened with testicular harm. But the airline is an industry like any other, subject to the same forces (stock holders, employee relations, customer service, profits, losses, etc.) and the individual carriers are companies like any others, required to adapt to the market place or die.

I hope this clears up some of the mystery (for those of you who havenít fallen asleep or closed this window after reading ďBrittany SpearsĒ).