Complain about packed airplanes. Rail over higher fares and paying to check luggage that used to fly free. Grumble that they've taken away the pillows.
But here's a new twist on the old story line: Air travel is getting better. At least if you judge it by the standards most fliers consider most important.
In October, U.S. carriers scored their best on-time arrival numbers in 20 months, with nearly 85 percent of flights pulling up to the gate within 15 minutes of their scheduled times, according to the flight tracking Web site FlightStats.com.
A fluke? Hardly. September's on-time performance was about the same as in October and far better than during previous summer months, the government reported. Only 13 flights were late 70 percent of the time, compared to 173 in August. Travelers were much less likely to have luggage lost or mishandled than earlier in the year.
Airline performance usually perks up in early fall, a slow period for travel as families stay home after the busy summer season. Still, the big reason for the improved numbers is simple: fewer planes and people flying around.
Starting after Labor Day, carriers cut domestic capacity — usually measured by the number of seats flown one mile — by roughly 10 percent. Airlines will restore some flights for the holidays. But deeper reductions loom in January with demand for air travel weakening.
"With the reduction of (flights), we're seeing better performance," says Meara McLaughlin, vice president for business development at FlightStats. "Less congestion on the ground, less congestion in the air. There's less pressure on the system."
Of course, that doesn't guarantee smooth flying. The slightest hiccup can turn New York's crowded skies to gridlock. Winter storms at key hubs like Dallas-Fort Worth or Atlanta can throw airlines into chaos. Airlines could shoot themselves in the foot by cutting their staffs too deeply.
"We have a time when … passengers find it a little more pleasant," says Dean Headley, an associate marketing professor at Wichita State University and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating. "But we don't know how long it will last."
I won't whimper about paying for my Diet Coke. Just get me and my bag there on time.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.