united airline photo: United Airline Twares united.jpg

Few experiences are as universal to Americans as the shared degradation and misery of flying on our nation’s air carriers. These corporate behemoths have somehow managed to wrap up everything wrong with this country and present it to us as a package deal: income inequality, corporate indifference, dwindling services, automation and skyrocketing prices all combined to make flying a tortuous chore rather than a pleasure, particularly in the last ten years.  It’s no different than fiscal austerity, really–just a calculated effort to push the limits of greed for a tiny minority to the point where Americans won’t tolerate any more, then convincing us that such a drastically diminished quality of life is the “new normal.”

And Americans continue to suffer it, because in most cases they feel they have to. For many, travel is a necessity for their livelihood. For others with scattered families travel is the only way to maintain personal connections.  The airlines understand they’re fulfilling a need, and at this point they’ve abandoned any pretense of actually caring about what their customers think of them. Thus an unnamed major carrier is considering something called “economy minus” where it can shove more people into its metal cylinders, gutting personal legroom and offering no services at all except (perhaps) a toilet.

The power of the corporations to collude is nowhere more visible than among the airlines. It’s practically impossible to keep track of which airline has merged with another. There are, it seems, only about two or three actual airlines that carry the vast majority of passengers in the Continental U.S.  Deregulation, once promoted to “foster competition,” and a near-constant train of mergers have created a perverse state where the airlines can now collude together to provide poorer levels of service.  One source of the miseries foisted on the air-traveling public is the much-reviled “fee” system:

In 2013, the major airlines combined made about $31.5 billion in income from fees, as well as other ancillaries, such as redeeming credit-card points. United pulled in more than $5.7 billion in fees and other ancillary income in 2013, while Delta scored more than $2.5 billion. That’s income derived in large part from services, such as baggage carriage, that were once included in ticket prices. Today, as anyone who travels knows well, you can pay fees ranging from forty dollars to three hundred dollars for things like boarding in a “fast lane,” sitting in slightly better economy-class seats, bringing along the family dog, or sending an unaccompanied minor on a plane.

The fees (perhaps the most notorious of which is the 200 dollar “change fee” imposed on travelers who have to alter their plans) are nothing more a than a crass marketing gimmick to pad ticket prices, many of which are already usurious, particularly for those travelers who book “refundable” tickets due to the volatile and often “last-minute” nature of business travel.  There can be a thousand dollar price differential between “refundable” and “non-refundable tickets.” A ‘refundable” fare to a “low volume” market such as Fargo North Dakota can cost as much as $2000, particularly if booked less than a week prior to travel.  Again, the airlines assume, quite correctly in most cases, that the traveler has “no other choice.”  But the revenue generated by these fares pales compared to the profits from fees:

The fees have proved a boon to the U.S. airlines, which will post a projected twenty-billion-dollar profit in 2014. To be fair, airlines are not just profiting because of fee income. Reduced competition, thanks to mergers, helps. There is also the plummet in the price of oil, which the airlines seem to have collectively agreed is no reason to reduce fares or even remove “fuel surcharges.” But for the past decade it is fees that have been the fastest-growing source of income for the main airlines, having increased by twelve hundred per cent since 2007.

As Tim Wu, writing for The New Yorker, acutely points out, the “fee” system itself leads to a downward spiral in quality, one that is ultimately agreed to by the airlines themselves:

But the fee model comes with systematic costs that are not immediately obvious. Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

The necessity of degrading basic service provides a partial explanation for the fact that, in the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience. For one thing, as the Wall Street Journal has documented, airlines have crammed more seats into the basic economy section of the airplane, even on long-haul flights. The seats, meanwhile, have gotten smaller—they are narrower and set closer together. Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports who worked in the airline industry for many years, studied seat sizes and summarized his findings this way: “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

As the New Yorker article illustrates, even the process of boarding the plane (grown ever more lengthy and painful as “privileged” business travelers–usually white males–who heavily traffic the airline are permitted to board first) is ruined by the fee system as airlines have no incentive to eliminate the “status racket.” Thus the process of boarding is unduly lengthened and yet another level of misery is added to the experience, along with an embarrassingly stark portrayal of income inequality.Beyond the elimination of food on all except cross-country flights, and the elimination of pillows, blankets, anything that might administer comfort, the surly attitude of many flight attendants and pilots has also contributed to the general misery.  Of course they are probably miserable as well, having to hawk an “exciting” ten minute “credit card” pitch at the conclusion of every flight, while pushing carloads of prepackaged foods and snacks that most customers choose not to purchase (some, including myself, out of pure rage).  This following invariable, unexplained flight delays or abrupt cancellations attributed to (often non-existent) “weather” or “maintenance” issues, trapping customers in a hermetically sealed palace of rip-offs that passes for a modern American airport, an intrusive and embarrassing security process, and fewer and fewer counter personnel, thanks to automated kiosks.

There is no reason why a country that permits its “successful” corporations to park hundreds of billions of untaxed dollars overseas should permit its transportation infrastructure to spiral down into Third World status, even as it ferries around its millionaire “business class.”  The fact is that the airlines represent a failed experiment, with the “invisible hand” of the free market leading, almost inexorably, to a more and more dismal product that shows no signs of improving in the near future.  What this suggests about the natural outcome of American capitalism may be even more disturbing.