No, you aren't imagining it: There is indeed less leg room on some airplanes than there used to be.
"Back in the old days, probably 20 years ago, the tendency was to have about 34 inches," says Mark Gerchick, a former chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration. "Now the standard is about 31 inches in the United States. ... Some of the low-cost airlines have tightened that up to about 28 inches, which is now approaching the limits of anatomical possibility."
This is clearly not ideal. In the introduction to his new book, Full Upright and Locked Position, Gerchick writes that for most people, "the magic of air travel has morphed into an uncomfortable, crowded and utterly soulless ordeal to be avoided whenever possible."
The book goes on to explain why it's gotten that way: why we pay so much in fees, why the person sitting next to you probably paid a considerably more — or less — than you paid for a ticket, why it often feels like there's not enough air on the plane and so on.
Now an aviation consultant, Gerchick is particularly bothered by how declining quality of service is matched with a steady increase in rates.
"What I'm concerned about," he says, "is if there's some way to maintain a degree of civility and dignity about air travel without the constant extraction of additional funds."
On the in-flight air quality inside the cabin
"It's extremely dry. Almost no humidity content. What that means is that in order to humidify the inside of a cabin, what's basically humidifying the cabin is the human beings in the cabin. So: sweat, other bodily effluents, our breathing. That's what's creating most of the humidity inside the aircraft cabin in altitude. Some of the new aircraft are actually trying to improve on that. They're actually adding back humidification systems into their airplanes and trying to bring it up to 15 or 16 percent humidity. But normally the humidity levels in airplanes, because of the coldness of the outside air, is not holding humidity. Normally those levels are very, very low, similar to Death Valley in the summertime."
On tensions that can erupt over space
"A couple of years ago a United Airlines flight to Ghana from Dulles had to turn around after there was an altercation after one person tilted their seat back all the way and the person behind slapped the head of the person who had tilted the seat back. And instead of running 5,000 miles out in the middle of the south Atlantic in the middle of the night not knowing what was going on, the pilot said, 'The heck with it,' and turned around, and was accompanied by a couple of F-16s and brought the airplane back to Dulles."
On concerns associated with regional planes
"One of the key issues is fatigue. The pilots who operate the regional carriers tend to operate lots of flights into congested airspace and busy airports. Lots of takeoffs and landings. They work very hard and long hours, and they tend to be less experienced than the major airline pilots who now have thousands and thousands of hours. They're all regulated to the same extent. They all have to meet the same minimum hours and experience, but the fact is that regional carriers don't have quite the same level of experience and expertise as the majors."
On the evolution of first class
"First class is getting to be really first class. And I speak not from a lot of personal experience, but the airlines have realized that this is where a great deal of their revenue comes from. One airline once said that 25 percent of the passengers provide 75 percent of the revenue. So if you get that premium cabin filled, you're going to do well. ... Some of the upscale foreign carriers — Emirates, Singapore, long-haul Asian carriers — have thrown tremendous amounts of money into first class. ... What's in store is that some of the Middle Eastern airlines are putting bidets in their bathrooms, and Emirates has a couple of showers on their A380. So you can have a five-minute drenching ... in their spa shower. Some of the airlines have new privacy pods which they're putting in their ultra-first-class A380, where you [have] basically 7 or 8 feet of space, your own large-screen television and private minibar, and it's an enclosed space, with a full bed. At the high end now we're talking $10,000 or $20,000 a ticket, so it's not exactly available for everybody."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I think I may have picked the wrong time to do this interview. I have to fly later this week, and as my guest writes in his new book about air travel, for most people the magic of air travel has morphed into an uncomfortable, crowded and utterly soulless ordeal to be avoided whenever possible.
The book explains why it's become that way, why there's no leg room, why it often feels like there's not enough air on the plane, why we pay so much in fees, why the person sitting next to you probably paid considerably more or considerably less than you paid for your ticket. The book is called "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today."
The author, my guest Mark Gerchick, is a former chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration and a former senior Department of Transportation aviation official. He's now an aviation consultant. Mark Gerchick, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MARK GERCHICK: Thank you, glad to be here.
GROSS: I'm going to start with the lavatories because honestly, that might be just, like, the grossest part of air travel, and I've always wondered about the lavatories and what really is happening there. So...
GERCHICK: You're not the only one.
GROSS: No, I figured. So let's start by just dispelling a myth. At least the waste isn't being dumped right out of the plane onto the ground or the water below.
GERCHICK: That's correct; it is not being dumped out of the plane. In fact, the FAA once had to issue a special advisory in Chicago telling folks - it was called the Blue Water Advisory, letting folks know that no, that is not waste being dumped out of the plane.
GERCHICK: In fact the FAA said it was birds ingesting blueberries or some such, but it is not being dumped out of the plane, no.
GROSS: So that's the good news. The toilets, you know, there's new kind of vacuum-powered toilets that you suction instead of flushing to get the waste out. I thought like this is good news, there's no like water splatter. It seems to cleanse the bowl better. There's less stuff usually plugging it up. And then I read your book.
GROSS: So what's going on with that suction, and why is it not as clean as I thought?
GERCHICK: Well, what it is is a vacuum, and essentially what happens is when you flush the toilet in a modern aircraft, it opens a passageway for that vacuum to suck out everything in it. And it uses much less water, which is the important thing for airlines. They don't want to be carrying a lot of extra weight. And water is very heavy. So is it cleaner or dirtier?
There are folks, real microbiologists and so forth, who will tell you that flushing any toilet tends to aerosolize what's inside it when you flush it. That apparently occurs also with airplane toilets. The issue there is it's a very small space that you're in. And so there have been studies of this, I believe it was the University of Arizona a number of years ago, some researchers found that there was a good deal of nasty stuff on the walls and surfaces of the airplane toilets.
You know, my solution to this is take plenty of hand sanitizer. That said, these are amazingly strong toilets. I mean, I understand that the mechanism rockets away what's in the toilet at a speed of approximately 64 miles an hour into a containment area inside the aircraft. So these are extremely powerful. Basically it's the force of the vacuum.
GROSS: So you get back to your seat, and maybe you've stuck your newspaper in that seat-back pouch in front of you, and you've just reached into what you describe as the germiest part of the cabin, that pouch in front of you. Why?
GERCHICK: Well, that's where everybody puts everything, starting with hands and then moving toward the remains of lunch, soiled diapers. Particularly it's the middle seat, it's the back of the middle seat where the kid usually sits when the family is traveling, and that's where all kinds of stuff gets dumped.
So you want to be really careful about putting your hands in there. I'm always a little careful about that back seat.
GROSS: Do you use the pouch?
GERCHICK: Yes, absolutely I do, but I usually have my little bottle of hand sanitizer with me.
GROSS: There's lots of conspiracy theories about the air in airplanes. You hear all kinds of things about the quality of the air. So let's talk about what's actually going on with the air in planes. You say a fully loaded jet has one of the smallest volumes of air per person of just about any enclosed space.
GERCHICK: That's correct.
GERCHICK: Well, you think about the volume of space in an airplane, in that tube, and you divide it by the number of human beings in it, it's about the same as a pretty crowded elevator at rush hour. It's a simple matter of mathematics. There's just not that much volume of air.
That said, they do exchange the air rather frequently, more frequently than, say, an office building.
GROSS: What is the quality of the air in a plane? Where is the air coming from? Is it clean air? Are we getting recirculated air...
GERCHICK: We are.
GROSS: ...from the cabin itself? Like, what is the air?
GERCHICK: On most modern jets it's really about 50-50. About half of it is recirculated, and about half of it is what you would say outside air. Now the recirculated air is pushed through HEPA filters, these are kind of a high, high filtration filters that are supposed to capture pretty much all the bacteria and the viruses that are contained in droplets and so forth, like a sneeze or a cough.
And they have been found to be quite effective. The airlines say they are similar to the kinds of things they use in hospital filtration systems.
GROSS: And what's the quality of the air? I mean, is the air high up, you know, in high altitude different than the air on the ground?
GERCHICK: Well yeah, in high altitude, for one thing it's extremely dry. There's almost no humidity content. And what that means is that in order to humidify the inside of a cabin, what's basically humidifying that cabin are the other human beings in the cabin, so sweat, other bodily effluents, our breathing. That's what's creating most of the humidity.
Some of the new aircraft are actually trying to improve on that. They're actually adding back humidification systems into their airplanes, and they're trying to bring it up to about 15 or 16 percent humidity. But normally the humidity levels in airplanes, because of the coldness of the outside air is not holding humidity, normally those levels are very, very low, somewhat equivalent to Death Valley in the summertime.
GROSS: So what does that mean in terms of how we feel when we're flying?
GERCHICK: Well, it actually is found to - may be the cause of - and again this is a medical issue, but it may be the cause of upper respiratory issues, colds and similar things. There's something called a mucociliary clearance process, which apparently has to do with the way your nose and other organs deal with germs and so forth in the air.
And apparently when you have very low humidity, that tends to inhibit that process, and so you do get higher - there seems to be a higher probability of getting a cold on an airplane. There was a study done in Canada a number of years ago where they, they found that something like - I think there's something like a five times greater chance, at a minimum, of catching cold on an airplane.
GROSS: A lot of people complain they get headaches when they fly. Is there a reason for that?
GERCHICK: Well, some believe that that has to do with the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain and via the lungs and so forth, and that has to do with pressurization of the aircraft. The airplanes don't simulate the experience of being at sea level. When you're in an airplane, obviously you're not at sea level, but the aircraft compensates to some degree for the altitude at which you're sitting in your chair by essentially pressurizing the aircraft, basically forcing the air into a pressure point so that the oxygen density is increased, and it goes to your brain, and so you feel more comfortable.
So right now the altitude, the virtual altitude of most aircraft, when you're in that airplane, is about 8,000 feet. So it's as though you're kind of, you know, you're floating 3,000 feet above Denver or maybe at the level of Flagstaff. And that can create mild hypoxia. That is not enough oxygen, as much as you'd like, is getting to your systems.
And that creates discomfort. New aircraft, like the 787 and the A350, are attempting to lower that virtual altitude by increasing the pressurization inside the airplane. So now you'll feel like it's more like 5,000 or 6,000 feet, which is, you know, basically a Denver-level altitude. People feel more comfortable, they feel less headaches, and they feel - according to the manufacturers, anyway.
And this is, by the way, made possible by some significant technological innovations in these airplanes. Basically what they've done is they've created a new kind of shell for the airplane, made out of carbon composites, instead of aluminum. The 787 has this, and the new A350 has some of this. Basically what that means is they can pressurize that cabin more so that you feel more comfortable, a little less of that sense of hypoxia and drowsiness and headache-iness, and they can do that.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Gerchick, author of the new book "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today." We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Gerchick. He's the author of the new book "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today." And he is the former chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration.
One of the frustrations of flying now is that, you know, you pay for your ticket, you think you have a price, and they you realize now you're first going to pay fees on top of that, fees for everything from checking a bag to, if you want extra legroom, you could pay extra for that. You can pay extra to get into a speedier line at check-in or security.
What are some of the other things you can pay fees for? Oh yes, if you think you're getting a free frequent-flyer-mile ticket, you're going to pay...
GERCHICK: No such thing anymore.
GROSS: You're going to pay a fee in order to be able to buy it, and if you have to cancel it, and you want your miles back, you pay a fee for that, too. Why do the airlines rely so much on fees now? This is a relatively new, quote, innovation.
GERCHICK: Well, it certainly is, and the airlines, this is a tremendously important source of finance for the - of revenue for the airlines. The fees now make the difference between, or have made the difference between, profit and loss. I think approximately $6 billion was the amount that the U.S. carriers made last year in just bag-checking fees and so-called change fees.
So it's a huge dollar number. They rely on this because raising fares is very difficult. In some senses this is a competitive industry, and people who go on the Internet, which is where most people are now buying their tickets, may put their routing in and see who's offering that routing, which airline is offering to fly them from Point A to Point B.
And many of them will take the airline that is $1 or $5 or $10 less than the other one. So nobody wants to be the high-fare entity. However, there's not much competition on fees. As somebody said, I think it was Spirit Airlines' CEO, said that there are no bag fee wars. So there may be price wars but not bag fee wars.
So it's a way of charging more without showing a fare that's different. Fees also have other advantages. Some of them are not subject to the 7.5 percent federal excise tax that applies to airline tickets, to pure transportation. So there are a variety of issues why fees are really better in some ways than fares for airlines.
GROSS: Oh, can we add another fee? The fee for booking through an agent instead of online. That's a common one now, too.
GERCHICK: Well, how about the fee for talking to a human being to make your ticket, or new fees for if you want to put your carry-on in the overhead carry-on bin, that'll cost you 50 bucks on some airlines now, or approximately that.
GROSS: You know, you write that one of the reasons why airlines have come to rely on fees is, you know, they do need the extra money, and one of the reasons why dates back to 2008, when there was a big hike in jet fuel prices, and that was really bad for the airlines. How do the jet fuel prices now compare to 2008 in terms of their impact on the industry?
GERCHICK: That's an excellent question really. The fuel prices are - have stabilized to some degree at a high level, and they continue to be a - probably the largest, actually the largest part of the cost of operating an airline. In 2008 they rose to about 40 percent of the cost of operating the airline, which was just a huge number.
Now the airlines have found a business model which in essence is allowing them to respond to huge fee increases while still making a profit. The airlines have found that - I think the head of the Airlines for America, the trade association, economist recently said that fuel costs are no longer a threat to survival, they're a threat to earnings.
And that's more or less what's going on here. The way that airlines have been able to do it is with fees and with fare increases. Fares have gone up in the last three or four years, probably some 20 percent over that period of time, and by constraining the number of flights and seats they're putting in the air.
They essentially discovered the law of supply and demand, and that's been a very powerful way of keeping fares up in the airline industry. So essentially they have found something of an antidote to the problem of fuel costs.
GROSS: One of the most baffling things about flying is ticket pricing. The ticket price that you pay to get from here to there is going to depend on what day you call, how many seats have already been booked, and they tell you when you make your reservation, like if you're lucky enough to be able to put it on hold, that the price might change...
GROSS: You know, by the time you actually give them your credit card number. And you describe how the airlines have divided the seats in a plane into buckets. So explain the bucket pricing system.
GERCHICK: OK, well basically about - nearly a year before that flight, there will be some geniuses at the airline who will decide that they will divide the number of available seats on that airplane into maybe a dozen or a few more what they call buckets. Each bucket contains a number of seats of different classes, different restrictions on whether you have to fly over - whether you have to stay over a Saturday night, how early you have to buy the ticket, 30 days in advance, whether it's refundable, and various other issues, and price.
Each seat on that airplane is put in one of those buckets. One will be - for example will be for tickets that you have to buy 30 days in advance of the flight. Say if you want to fly to Disney World with the kids, and you're willing to buy a ticket, you know you're going to go when school's out, you're willing to make it not refundable, you're willing to stay there over a weekend, you can get a great deal.
You're in the - you will get a ticket from one of the really low-fare discount buckets. But now if you're a businessperson who has to get to a newly called meeting, say, three days from now, and you have to be there, you're willing to pay a lot more. So you're going to have to get a ticket from another bucket. That's going to be the high-end bucket. That's going to be maybe a Y-fare bucket.
Each of these buckets has associated alphanumeric names, alphabetical names. But so you're going to be paying five times what the tourist who wants to go to Disney World is going to be paying. So each - that airplane is full of buckets. There are a number of buckets. Once one bucket is empty, once everybody has bought up those 30-day-in-advance tickets, there aren't any more of them.
So the next person who comes along wishing to buy a ticket will have to buy from the slightly more expensive bucket, the next bucket up. And this is the way that the airlines basically create different pricing, different products. The product of a ticket for tomorrow's flight at a convenient business time is viewed by the airlines as an entirely different product from a ticket purchased 30 days in advance to - on a nonrefundable basis.
The airline wants to sell the cheap ticket to the tourist that won't pay any more and wants to make sure that the most expensive ticket is sold to the businessperson who has to be in Philadelphia tomorrow.
GROSS: The last few times I've flown, the seats have been full, which wasn't always the case, and you point out that there used to be a lot more half-empty planes than there are now. So what have the airlines learned about how to fill planes? Are they just flying fewer planes and therefore the ones they are flying are more filled?
GERCHICK: Well, that's - actually that is the - the big solution is in fact to cut capacity, to fly fewer airplanes and fewer seats and essentially force people who want to travel into fuller airplanes. But I should add that crowding is probably the number one issue in terms of comfort for travelers. That is probably the biggest complaint: Airplanes are now very, very full.
I think most recently for this summer, we're talking about what they call load factors, that is the percentage of seats filled by paying passengers, will be probably on the order of 87 to 90 percent on popular routes, and that means really they're going to be full, because that other 10 percent is inhabited by non-revenue passengers they call them, perhaps crew that are traveling around or airline employees and so forth.
So you're basically going to face absolute full airplanes in most circumstances on popular routes at convenient times. The way they do it, again, is through this - in part through this pricing mechanism we just discussed. If there are empty seats, the airline will have a tremendous history of what's happened to that flight last year, the year before, the year before.
How soon did that flight fill up? How soon did people buy the tickets for that flight? If it's two weeks before the flight, and the computer says you should have sold 75 seats, but you've only sold 60 seats, the airline can lower the fare or actually add more seats to the low-fare bucket.
But on the other hand if the flight is selling faster than they expected based on historical trends, they can maintain the high fares and expect that they're going to be able to fill every seat at the higher fare. So this is an extraordinarily complicated kind of process, and it's one that's probably valued - probably provided, some estimate five to 10 percent more revenue to the airlines just on sophisticated revenue management.
GROSS: Mark Gerchick will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: You mentioned that comfort is one of the biggest complaints on planes because people are so crowded together. That's in part because the planes are full. But also, a lot of people feel like there is less leg room than there used to be on planes. Is there in fact less leg room?
GERCHICK: Yes. On some planes there is. Back in the old days - probably 20 years ago - the tendency was to have about 34 inches of what's known as seat pitch. That's the distance between the back of one seat to the back of the next seat. It's basically, in the sense, in a rough sense, what you consider leg room. It's about 34 inches. Now the standard is more like 31 inches in the United States. And some airlines, some ultra-low-cost airlines, have tightened even that up to about 28 inches, which is we're now approaching the limits of anatomical possibility. So you know, the more seats you can cram in, the more money you make.
Just think about it. If you have a 30-row airplane and you cut just one inch of seat pitch between each seat, you can add an entire new row of paying passengers. So there is a tremendous incentive to do so. There's even talk now - not even, there's more than talk, there are new designs being thought about for making the lavatories even smaller than they are. So that you can...
GERCHICK: Yes, indeed.
GERCHICK: That's being considered. And, in fact, it's being designed.
GROSS: Wow. All right. So I'm just going to voice a pet peeve here. One of the perhaps compensatory things for the lack of leg room is that you can tilt your seat back, which doesn't give you more leg room, but I think people feel like they have more space if they do that. But that means that the person in back of that person who is tilting back not only doesn't have leg room, they also have that person's seat in their lap. And it makes it very difficult to put down the tray; it makes it very uncomfortable for the person behind the tilted seat. And I just don't understand why airlines continue to have those seats that can tilt back when they're not giving us enough leg room to make that fair to the person behind.
GERCHICK: Believe it or not, seat-back tilt is a big issue and it approaches the importance of armrest battles. But let's talk about seat backs...
GROSS: I didn't realize it had risen to that stature.
GERCHICK: Oh, indeed it has. In fact, some of these very tight seat-pitch airlines have what they call pre-reclined seats, which means they don't recline at all, basically in deference to the issue you raise. The seat-back fights have actually escalated to the point where in one case, I think a couple of years ago, a United Airlines flight to Ghana from Dulles had to turn around after there was an altercation after one person tilted his seat back all the way and the person behind slapped the head of the person who had tilted the seat back. And instead of running 5,000 miles out across the South Atlantic at the middle of the night, not knowing what was going on, the pilot said the heck with it and turned around, was accompanied by a couple of F-16s and brought the airplane back to Dulles. So seat-back recline fights can be very, very dramatic.
But, yes, I mean the whole question of space and seat pitch, I think the airlines would probably say, look, if you'd like a little more space, let us offer you to buy a few more inches. There are the, you know, everybody's got now some sort of economy-plus or whatever they call them, where you can buy a few more inches of space or, of course, if you want a real deal, you can buy a business-class ticket for four or five times the price. So the theory would be, the airlines would say, you can have more space but you need to pay for it. And in general the airlines are saying that about a lot of things. If you want a more comfortable experience, you have to pay for it.
GROSS: Well, here's something that was really news to me. Your ticket, the one that's put on the bag, and also I guess your boarding pass that has a lot of numbers on it...
GROSS: ...those numbers give a lot of information about you, the flyer. What kind of information is encoded in those numbers?
GERCHICK: Well, the numbers will, the numbers are going to tell you essentially what you paid for your ticket. Not exactly, but they'll give the crew and everybody else a pretty good sense of whether you're a full-paying first-class or coach flyer, which is a very high priority for the airlines, or whether you are an award ticket holder, as used to say, a free ticket, although they're not really free anymore because you're paying fees for those free tickets, or whether you're a discount flyer who's on a low-fare, long in advance purchased ticket.
GROSS: But once I get onto the plane, no one ever looks at my ticket, so how do they know what my number is?
GERCHICK: Well, there's a manifest that, it's usually a printed-out piece of paper that is handed by the gate agent to the flight attendant on most airlines, showing each of the passengers by name, certainly in the premium classes anyway, the first and business classes, and showing whether they paid full fare, how elite they are and some other information about them.
In fact, some airlines, like British Airways, are now putting this on iPads, which go directly to the purser or the chief flight attendant on the aircraft so that they can immediately identify who is walking into first-class or business-class and greet them by name.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Gerchick, author of the new book "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths About Air Travel Today." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: When you fly now, if you're not flying to a major city through a nonstop flight, you're likely to fly to a major city that's a hub and then get on a smaller plane to the actual final destination you're going to.
GROSS: Why does this hub system work for airlines?
GERCHICK: The hub system creates lots of efficiencies. Essentially what it does is it can load large numbers of people from lots of small points into one big corridor between the major cities - the hub-to-hub route. So essentially it'll take you from, you know, Madison, Wisconsin, will put you to Chicago and then from Chicago to Tokyo, where the airlines are making their real money, and then in Tokyo somebody will take you to some other city in Japan. So the idea is efficiency. Hubs create efficiency until, of course, they become dysfunctional, in which case they cause delays and you can have real problems.
GROSS: If you're flying to a hub and then taking another plane to your final destination, chances are that second plane is going to be a smaller plane and it's likely to be one that is subcontracted by the larger airline but owned by a different airline. How often does that happen? Is that typically the case that that smaller plane is going to be something that the larger company subcontracted to?
GERCHICK: It happens very often. In fact, something, I believe a majority of flying in the United States is on what we call regional jets or commuter jets.
GROSS: And you write that most accidents on planes happen in those smaller planes. Why is that?
GERCHICK: Well, they have happened in the smaller planes. The statistics are pretty clear about that. I have to add, though, that the safety record of both the commuter and the major airlines in the United States has been truly remarkable. This is an incredibly safe way of travel. The numbers are so - of accidents are so low that it's almost statistically inconsequential.
GROSS: Do you have any concerns about those smaller regional planes?
GERCHICK: There are concerns that the level of experience, training and fatigue issues associated with the regional and commuter planes are not as good as with the major airlines. The government has at various times sought to promote what they call one level of safety, which is essentially to bring the commuter and regional airlines to the same level of safety as the major airlines. The key, one of the key issues is really fatigue. The pilots who operates the regional carriers tend to fly lots of flights into congested airspace and busy airports and they work very hard and long hours. They also tend to be less experienced than the major airline pilots who now have, you know, thousands and thousands of hours. They're all regulated to the same extent. They all have to meet the same hours and the same - the same minimum hours and experience. But the fact is that the regional carriers don't have quite the same level of experience and expertise as the majors.
GROSS: And also, I'm not saying this is a safety issue, but the pilots on those smaller regional airlines, according to your book, are paid a lot less than the pilots on the larger airlines.
GERCHICK: They are. Particularly the copilots or first officers can - entry-level first officers at some of these airlines are paid less than $20,000 a year.
GERCHICK: Yeah. So it's at the major airlines, at the very top of the heap, the most senior captains are probably more like $250,000, including various benefits and retirement pay.
GROSS: I think it's fair to say that the major airlines outsource a lot of the plane maintenance to other companies. And questions have been raised about how competent those companies are and therefore how safe the planes themselves are. What have you learned about that?
GERCHICK: You're right. The maintenance of aircraft is a big issue now. And there is a question as to how carefully and how rigorously the FAA oversees maintenance, these maintenance facilities. Maintenance facilities have to be regulated and they're overseen by the FAA, but the frequency of FAA investigation, oversight and so forth has really been open to question. There are two issues, really. One is the overall oversight of the FAA, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of these facilities, and how carefully the FAA can actually oversee all of them is a question. There's also the question of foreign maintenance facilities, which has drawn a lot of heat in recent years. The cost of maintaining an aircraft through these maintenance facilities is higher if it's done by American unionized workers than if it's done by American nonunionized workers, and that in turn is higher than if it's done, generally done, abroad.
There are some excellent maintenance facilities in places abroad in Western Europe and Hong Kong and other places which are state-of-the-art. And then there are some that have been open to question in Latin America and so forth. In general, maintenance has not the problem for airline safety. As I recall, the last maintenance-related or maintenance-caused air crash was quite a number of years ago, involved a small aircraft which had been maintained in Huntington, West Virginia. So it wasn't a foreign maintenance base issue. There is also a question as to how much of the concern about off-shoring maintenance is an economic concern for labor and how much of it is a bona fide safety concern. As I understand it, this has not been a major priority, for example, for American pilots. And you would imagine that they might be more vociferous if this were a true safety issue.
Maintaining aircraft, by the way, is a very, very complex endeavor. It's not just checking the tires and the hydraulics. It's - now it's involving lots of work on computers and very sophisticated avionics, and so it's a challenging issue but one that so far does not seem to have created a major problem.
GROSS: When you look ahead to the future of flight, what are some of the good and some of the bad things that you see?
GERCHICK: Well, you know, on the good side, I do think that technology is going to really improve the everyday flying experience, the ability to check in and avoid lines - on our cell phones or on the kiosk. In addition, I think that the new aircraft that are coming along are really going to improve the experience. The 787, the 350, various other airplanes are coming up with new technologies that will increase the pressurization on airplanes, making it more comfortable, increase the humidity, making it more comfortable, and actually some of them are attending to the feng shui of the aircraft cabin and trying to improve the perception of space, if not the actuality.
I think also the - we are headed for an improvement in air traffic control. It's going to take a while but there's a program that the government calls NexGen that will, that should cut delays and should improve the duration of flying. And I think the airports also are improving their experience. I don't know if you had an opportunity recently, but the - to spend any time in airports, but after 9/11 and the security issues occurred, there was a substantial growth in what's called dwell time - that is, the amount of time that passengers generally spend in airports; often it's longer than they spend on the aircraft. And airports have done some, are doing some pretty interesting things. I happen to do some work with San Francisco and there's a yoga room now there that opens at 4:30 in the morning. In Munich there's a - kind of a Bavarian beer hall. You know, there are all kinds of - in Amsterdam there is a branch of the Rijksmuseum that's in the airport. So I mean it's a, I think the airports are taking up the slack and I think that's a positive sign.
On the negative, it's going to be impersonal. It's going to be efficiency-driven. It's going to continue to be crowded. And it's going to be more and more expensive. One hopes that at the end of the day, a more stable airline industry may be a little bit more humane, that there may be a little more of a relaxed kind of approach by airlines and the front-line employees of airlines who, you know, if they feel that things are - if they're more optimistic about their own lives and their jobs and so forth, then maybe, actually, there'll be a certain more, greater humanity in air travel. And that would be something that I think we all want.
GROSS: First class, if you can afford it, is getting a little more luxurious on some flights, maybe particularly international flights. What's in store for the people who have enough money or enough miles for that?
GERCHICK: Well, first class is getting to be really first class. And I speak not from great amount of personal experience, but the airlines have realized that this is where a great deal of their revenue comes from, that I think one airline recently said that something like 25 percent of the passengers provide 75 percent of the revenue. So there's a - if you get the first class, that premium cabin filled, you're going to do well.
And so there's great competition, really, for some of the upscale foreign carriers. You know, Emirates, Singapore, long-haul Asian carriers have thrown tremendous amounts of money into first class - American carriers, not so much. Some have abandoned the pure first class for kind of a hybrid business class, but the - not all of them.
In order to keep those long-haul travelers that are flying to Tokyo from New York, though, there needs to be - their feeling is that there needs to be a very luxurious experience available. What's in store? I think some of the Middle Eastern airlines are now putting bidets in their bathrooms, and Emirates has a couple of showers on their A380 airplane.
So you can have a five-minute drenching - which has got to be nice - in their spa shower. Some of the airlines have new pods, privacy pods, which they're putting in their ultra-first-class A380s, where you have basically seven or eight feet of space and your own large screen television and private mini-bar, and it's an enclosed space. So - with a full bed. So at the high end, now we're talking ten or twenty thousand dollars a ticket. So...
GERCHICK: ...it's not exactly available to everybody.
GROSS: OK. My final question: Do we really need to turn off our cell phones and other devices during landings and takeoffs? Are we really interfering with instrument panels and other flight communication issues?
GERCHICK: I can say this: The FAA is actually looking at that very hard right now, and my personal guess is that you will be able to not turn them off within the next year or two. That's my personal guess, though. I could be wrong. I'm certainly not an electrophysicist. But I will say that there are aircraft operated outside the United States where cell phone usage is allowed, and so far, I haven't heard of any major issues with those.
GROSS: Mark Gerchick, thank you for talking with us.
GERCHICK: My pleasure.
GROSS: Mark Gerchick is the author of "Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.