Thomas Ovans tries to keep up with Mark Gerchick’s comprehensive analysis of the airline business which explains why and how the glamour of flying has now been reduced as much as the legroom in economy class.

full uprightFull Upright and Locked Position
Mark Gerchick
W W Norton & Co
ISBN 978-0-393-08110-7
352 pages  $24.95

We are accustomed to hearing grumbles – and even doing some grumbling ourselves – about airline travel not being what it used to be.  Grievances often cited include cramped seating, unappetising in-flight meals, draconian baggage restrictions, delays at check-in and confusing website booking procedures.  Since the 1970s, aviation has ceased to be a luxurious form of transport for the relatively wealthy and become as much a mass-transit experience as a ride on a commuter train.

In his entertaining and informative new book, Full Upright and Locked Position, Mark Gerchick looks behind these familiar and unpalatable facts.  Long experience as an aviation consultant and one-time Department of Transportation official enables him to explain just how the 1970s task of going to a travel agent to buy a rather expensive airline ticket (which included quite a lot in the way of passenger service and comfort) has turned into today’s task of going onto the internet and doing all one’s own clerical work in order to buy a not particularly cheap airline ticket (which excludes many of the basics needed to ensure  minimal comfort and convenience).  While not being an apologist for the industry, Gerchick does point out various factors in the economics of running an airline which most readers will not have thought of.  These might make them marginally more understanding of the indignities which occur both at the airport and on the aircraft.

Readers may at least draw some comfort from Gerchick’s analysis of safety issues.  Aircraft systems have become increasingly robust and reliable in the last thirty years; and it also appears that most airlines in Europe and North America do adhere to the flight and maintenance procedures specified by government regulation because they have now grasped that, while safety procedures certainly cost a lot of money, having an accident is really expensive.  There is, however, continual tension between regulators and operators:  commercial demand for more flights on certain routes may conflict with rules regarding the separation intervals between aircraft, especially at take-off & landing.  There can also be poor communication between the left and right hands of government, e.g., when stringent new rules are put in place but too few inspectors are employed (for fear of “wasting” taxpayers’ money). Gerchick is good at uncovering stories which should perhaps be tattooed on the flesh of all politicians to illustrate the law of unintended consequences.  When President Reagan dismissed some 13,000 air traffic controllers during a labour dispute in 1981 he triggered the mass-hiring of  younger replacements all of whom are reaching retirement age around now. Hence rather a high proportion (between 25 and 40 per cent) of the controllers currently managing US air space are new recruits and relatively inexperienced.

The book also includes interesting observations on the psychology of airline pilots and some insights into what goes on in the cockpit (or “pointy end”) during intercontinental flights when the aeroplane is largely being flown by computers.  We also learn the philosophy behind the complex fare structures which may attach different prices to similar seats in the same aircraft. Gerchick claims that the airlines have become very skilful at using statistics and historical data to set the price for each seat to be very close to the maximum that its potential occupant is prepared to pay.

Although the book is fairly reassuring about the unlikelihood of being involved in a crash, it is more pessimistic about harm that might come to passengers through what they ingest during the flight. Being in a confined space with several hundred other people involves the risk of acquiring an infection simply by breathing the well-used air or by touching shared surfaces like the toilet door handle. Worse, the drinking water on aircraft has on occasions been found to be contaminated; and inspections of the conditions in which airline meals are prepared have raised questions about the wholesomeness of what goes into them!  (As an aside, it can be more interesting to learn about what doesn’t go into them: one company apparently saved $40,000 a year by removing one olive from every salad served to first class passengers!)

Full Upright and Locked Position treats all these issues, and more besides, in a highly enjoyable way that should appeal to anyone who travels by air at least once or twice a year.  Gerchick’s writing is clear and pleasantly confident, but it is always understated, rather than sensational, even when revealing quite startling information.  Readers will often be surprised by what they learn. Sometimes they will also be amused; but sometimes surprise may turn to anger – for instance at the self-serving inertia that can be shown by the industry in resisting and delaying the introduction of regulations that are simply meant to prevent passenger discomfort from becoming intolerable.

 On the basis that “knowledge is power”, it might be a good strategy to read this book rather ostentatiously while approaching the check-in desk or when requesting some in-flight attention.