Is Flying getting worse or better? Reflections on four+ decades of airflights


Alitalia Boeing 747-243B(I-DEMP/22513/546)

Alitalia Boeing 747-243B(I-DEMP/22513/546)

In 1977, flying from Sydney to Roma, I watched one movie per sector (on a large screen on an Alitalia 747). The film was loaded at each stop onto a centrally mounted projector which dropped from roof of each cab350x263px-f432974f_img_0169a-1in. The flight to Roma had three stops of between two and three hours each so four movies were shown on the one flight! Each airport has very few facilities and were essentially concrete sheds. (Singapore’s Changi was being built).

The headphones were a tube and the audio was out of sync with the visual. One of the films was The Pink Panther Strikes Again and it was infuriating to have the gags out of sequence!

People smoked around me- constantly.

Two weeks ago and 40 years later, I was sitting up front on an Etihad flight.  Etihad, is today, the saviour of Alitalia owning a chunk of their capital. On this plane, I had the choice of multiple movies shown on my personal screen with the sound coming through noise cancelling headphones on Etihad. None of the movies were The Pink Panther but there were quite a few “retro” films.


My Business Seat on Etihad. Business Class is a relatively recent invention.

img_6055Today, the airports are like shopping malls with aeroplane gates. All of the airports we stopped at, en route to Rome in 1977 have been rebuilt. Singapore’s Changi is now my favourite airport in the world.

1977 was significant for ticket prices globally. It was the year that price competition began in what hae been a throughly regulated industry with the introduction of advance purchase excursion (APEX) fares in many markets. In early 1978, the US airline industry was deregulated and the game changed forever. The price of air travel fell by 50 per cent on average over the next three decades. In 1979 it cost 30US cents per mile to fly on average. Now,  it is just over 15Us cents per mile.

Today I can fly from Sydney to Roma, roundtrip, for about one weeks average Austalian salary. In US dollars today it can be under $US1,000 round trip. In 1977, it was $US1,936 which was 12 weeks average Australian wages.screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-2-30-24-pm

Flying is also way safer. In 1977, there were a total of 340 plane crashes including the world’s worst-ever accident in Tenerife where two 747s collided in fog. 2450 people died in plane crashes including the 335 at Tenerife. In 2016, the number of crashes was 102, a reduction of two-thirds on 40 years ago. Tragically, 629 lost their lives in air travel but when you consider almost three billion people flew in an aeroplane, its a very, very miniscule percentage. (I mean those who died no disrespect, and may they Rest in Peace).  Global air travel has doubled every 15 years since 1977.

Since my first flight in 1968, I have been faithfully rating all of my flights, I have a very good record of how flying has been each year having flown an average of 30,000 miles (50,000 kms) a year through my life.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I rated my flights an average of 4 out of 5. Even with those tube headphones!

For the 1990s, my average rating of all my flights sat at 4.25 out of 5 – about 85%.

In 2001, I rated my flights 4.7 out of five.  The events of September 2001, changed that. The effect of the downturn that followed in travel, the collapse of one of my favourite airlines in Australia (Ansett) and the rise of the draconian security arrangements meant flying in 2o02 scored a measly 3 out of 5 (60%) average.

For most of the first decade of the 21st century, flying from my perspective, sat at average of 3.8 out of 5 (76%). Seats got narrower and closer together, meals got crappier or they just vanished, fees started to appear for every service I used to take for granted. The cuts were across all cabins. Even the lounges lost features such as free drinks and nice soaps! Staff across the globe seemed desperately unhappy as management laid off people, cut wages, furloughed staff and gutted pension funds, wages and conditions.

Since 2010? An average of 4.2 out of 5

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-2-55-46-pmIn 2016, I have rated flying at 4.2 out of five. A return at last, to the pre-2001 days. Airlines in the current more positive economic environment have become kinder, some amenities have returned and staff seem happier.  I have also got more used to the nuisance sides of security. I also pay for things I used to take for granted such as seats with more leg room. Planes are much nicer today with B787s and A380s technology streets ahead of what I flew in the 1970s! Flying today from Sydney to Rome is a one stop A380 flight in a smoke-free environment which is much more quieter and safer than it was four decades ago. Best of all, it comes at a lower cost!

I still miss the leg room in economy although Premium Economy and Business Class have roomier cabins. Both of which did not exist in 1977.  First Class today has more leg room now than it did in the 1970s and many, many more comforts!

So this has been the best year, for me, to be a passenger ever (even without counting my First Class Qantas 380 flight!).

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