Take a Ride in the Airline Time Machine

PHOTO: An archive image of American Airlines website from 2005, shows low airfare compared to recent prices.Archive.org
An archive image of American Airline's website from 2005, shows low airfare compared to recent prices.

Hey, want to go to Europe? How does about $400 to Dublin sound? That's the round-trip price including all taxes and fees and yes, it is on an airline you've actually heard of (Delta).

Just one problem: The fare was only available back in 2009. I know because I just reviewed our historical archives plus the front pages of the airline's website as they existed back in 2009. How'd I see that? An Internet time capsule known as WayBack.

Think of WayBack as something of a website time machine. Google "WayBack Machine" and click on a world of 240 billion website pages dating back to the Dawn of the Internet. Well, back to 1996, anyway. This non-profit archive showcases a snapshot of publicly accessible web pages for just about any company you can think of, covering as many dates as possible (though dates tend to be more scattered the further back you go). WayBack likes to say it offers more text than the U.S. Library of Congress which boasts 35 million books.

History fascinates me almost as much as air travel and there's nothing like a time machine for insight into the evolution of fees and fares. It's fun too, and here's what I've discovered:

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Like a lot of industries, the airlines didn't seem to know what to make of the Internet at first. So, they did what most do when something new comes along. They used it for PR.

American Airline's' first appearance on WayBack (April 1998) featured a primitive, bare-bones page that boasted, "The most popular airline site on the Web!" which wasn't much of a contest considering how few had any Internet presence at all. In fact if you tried to find American just a year earlier (1997) the only thing that would pop up for www.aa.com was something called Architech & Arts, and while the title was in English, everything else on that site was in Japanese.

One airline that did embrace the new technology in 1997 offered this cheery greeting: "Welcome aboard the TWA 'We're up to something good' Web Site!" What they weren't up to was selling anything online. If you wanted to fly TWA you had to call the airline or a travel agent (remember those?).

Airlines got the hang of it eventually and began using their websites to sell tickets after the early adopters like Travelocity, Expedia and others who all had websites by 2000 (and some much earlier). Suddenly, airlines had new competition for a slice of passenger travel dollars and they've been complaining ever since (and fighting back with clever tactics like no booking-fees and later a sushi menu of fees for offsite customers).

Today, you can still call for a reservation but of course there's a fee for that. And of course you won't be calling TWA. Which brings us to some darker aspects of airline history, as seen from our time machine.

I look at the last decade in terms of two overwhelming events for air travel: 9/11 and the combination fuel crisis/recession a handful of years later.

A post on American's homepage on Sept. 11, 2001 was both straightforward and poignant: "This morning, two American jets carrying 158 passengers and 17 crewmembers were lost in apparent terrorist attacks." United was also mourning the loss of two planes and vowed to assist law enforcement in "bringing to justice the individuals or organizations responsible for these horrific criminal acts."

As the grieving continued, air travel was suddenly changing for all of us. On Oct. 1, JetBlue said "We will not let our spirit be broken" while Southwest tackled the underlying issue: "We know that you may be asking the question, 'Should I fly by air?'" After the horrors of 9/11, many stayed home and the airlines felt it. American, which had taken over TWA that April, said a final goodbye to the fabled carrier on Dec. 1. There would be other carrier casualties.

But of immediate concern for passengers was security. TSA didn't even have a website until 2002 (it didn't exist until late Nov. of 2002) so it was up to the airlines to alert travelers to security dos and don'ts on their web pages and they did a pretty good job. JetBlue told its readers "no cutting instruments of any kind and composition" and urged passengers to get to the airport two hours early. Removing our footwear wouldn't take place routinely until well after would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid attempted to bring down an American flight in December of 2001 but it's still with us today.

After 9/11, the airlines limped along for a while with empty seats and falling prices until they hit on capacity cutting as a survival tool, and ultimately the financial sector recovered, too. But over the roar of a revving economy came the sound of a sudden crash. The recession of 2008 was on.

Website headlines, courtesy of another time machine - Washington, D.C.'s Newseum - screamed "Financial Meltdown" and debated the $700 billion bailout. Later WayBack snapshots zeroed in on the automaker bailouts (remember those tone-deaf those CEOs, seeking handouts even as they flew to D.C. on private jets?).

It wasn't long before people started cutting back on vacations prompting airfare steals like that $400 round-trip ticket to Ireland. Crises mean cheap fares, but this time the airlines had another trick up their sleeves: Fees.

American Airlines actually entered this arena a little earlier. Anyone visiting aa.com in May, 2008 saw an innocuous-sounding announcement about "Updated Checked Bag Policies" but that phrase hid a bombshell: American had just become the first major carrier to institute a first checked-bag fee ($15, but it soon went up). Once the recession hit, most of the others joined in and the fee frenzy (think of Frontier's $2 sodas) has continued to this day.

I love time machines. I expect future generations will too. Maybe by the time 2113 rolls around, my great, great grandchildren will be grousing about Virgin Galactic charging $14 million for a flight to Mars. I don't even want to think about the bag fees.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.