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Delta and other air carriers score big profits on passenger misery

Remember the old days of air travel? A friendly stewardess took your coat, stowed your bags and served you meals inspired by well-known restaurants. The pilot strolled through the cabin for a chat and you never had to scramble for a pillow or a blanket.

If that is hard to imagine, it's not surprising. For nearly four decades, since the Airline Deregulation Act passed in 1978 ending government control of fares and routes, the industry has been in a tailspin -- at least for passengers.

In the October issue, Consumer Reports details the myriad of ways in which air carriers have subjected travelers to indignities , both seen and unseen, making air travel a nightmare.

Airlines have become so focused on profits and they will do almost anything to increase them. In 2015, air carriers earned record profits of $25.6 billion even as passenger satisfaction remained low.

It doesn't help that four major carriers -- including Atlanta-based Delta Airlines -- control 80 percent of the market. There is little incentive to serve a customer who has limited choices.

One of the most notable issues is fares, which declined in 2015 for the first time since 2012 . The decrease came after the Department of Justice opened an investigation as to whether the four largest carriers -- American, Delta, Southwest and United -- had colluded to keep ticket prices high.

Of course, much of the 3.7 percent decrease in fares was offset by the ballooning fees charged to customers. Bag fees , seat selection fees, and fees for meals are just some of the items that passengers are increasingly expected to pay for when they fly.

Related: Baggage fee lawsuit now includes millions of fliers

Even as airlines have increased fees, more comforts have disappeared.

Consumer Reports found that airline seats have shrunk with the narrowest seats in coach at 17 inches wide. First Class seats are 21 to 30 inches wide. Leg room has also been dramatically reduced. At 30 inches on some planes, the space between rows is 1 to 5 inches less than it was in 1985.

Some airlines do better than others. It is probably no coincidence that Spirit, the lowest rated airline, has about 28 inches of leg room on most of its aircraft.

Atlanta-based Delta ranked second among the four major carriers in the CR rankings and smack in the middle of the 13 providers measured. Southwest ranked first among the four majors and second overall.

Delta's  biggest failings were on leg room, seat width and comfort, room for carry-on bags, food and in-flight entertainment.

Related: Delta testing out new in-flight snacks: Cashews, yogurt bars

It scored slightly better on cabin cleanliness and "no hidden fees," and got average scores for ease of check-in and service from airline staff.

There are plenty of other questionable changes that have happened behind the scenes in air travel that may not be in the best interest of passengers according to Consumer Reports.

In some cases, a fuel surcharge may be tacked on to your ticket price. And depending on your travel route, you may be paying a major carrier fares to fly on a regional carrier. Some airlines don't always make it clear when you are booking that you will be flying a contracted carrier which may not feature standard amenities.

Finally, airlines are increasingly outsourcing maintenance to third-party companies overseas which has raised questions of safety.

So far, there doesn't seem to be any cause for concern. There have been no accident related fatalities on U.S. planes since 2009 compared to about seven accidents per year from 1964 to 1973.

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.