Why Air Travel in America Is Such a Disaster
Do you hate how airlines treat you? Blame decades of deregulation and consolidation.
Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
On Sunday, when a United passenger was violently dragged off an overbooked flight by Chicago police, the brutality of the video shocked the internet. The 69-year-old victim was reportedly a doctor who needed to stay on the flight in order to see patients the next morning; nevertheless he was picked out by the airline to be removed after no one on board volunteered to give up their seat in exchange for an $800 voucher. Since the video of the assault went viral, United issued a rather flaccid apology, with its CEO issuing a statement calling the event "upsetting" and saying, "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers."
If this was an especially brutal instance of an airline mistreating a paying customer, it was also a reminder of the everyday absurdity of how air travel works. Overbooking—selling more tickets than there actual seats—is common and only accepted because most of the time someone is happy to take money in exchange for a later flight. If you fly economy, like most of us, leg room is nonexistent, it's expensive to check your bag (but can also cost you money to bring your luggage on board), and airport security is intrusive and time-consuming. Buying a ticket is an insanely opaque process, and prices change based on the day of the week you book a flight. And none of this is getting better.
What happened to the doctor on United Express Flight 3411 ostensibly feels especially alarming because it could so easily happen to you—who among us has not been an overbooked flight that didn't allow everyone who had purchased a ticket their rightful seat? But if air travel can seem like it wasn't designed for humans, you can thank the United States government for that.
Though the country has centuries-old antitrust laws to prevent companies from becoming monopolies who can control pricing in unfair ways, airlines have basically done so anyways. In the last ten years, the nine biggest airlines in the United States have consolidated into four. The major players today—United, American, Delta and, Southwest—have many common shareholders. Five of the seven largest institutional United shareholders are also the largest shareholders of Delta and Southwest, a 2015 study found. Though some people have called for a boycott of United, an obviously worthy cause, it's difficult to make sure your money doesn't find its way into the pockets of United's owners.
The Barack Obama administration knew this consolidation was a problem approved two of the major mergers over the past decade that has undoubtedly harmed consumers. Perhaps an attempt to correct course after approving two major mergers, in 2013, the Department of Justice filed a suit to stop American Airlines and US Airways from merging—until government officials suddenly changed their minds. According to a blockbuster Pro Publica report from October:
The Justice Department's abrupt reversal came after the airlines tapped former Obama administration officials and other well-connected Democrats to launch an intense lobbying campaign, the full extent of which has never been reported. They used their pull in the administration, including at the White House, and with a high-level friend at the Justice Department, going over the heads of staff prosecutors. And just days after the suit was announced, the airlines turned to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's first White House chief of staff, to help push back against the Justice Department.
The airlines have been getting what they want for four decades. In 1978, Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act, which radically altered air travel in the United States. The bill effectively disbanded the Civil Aeronautics Board, a group that regulated airlines as if they were government entities, in charge of deciding routes and fares for all companies. (Before 1978, these carriers just competed on service, as ticket prices were set by the government.) Deregulating airlines did help consumers by making it way, way cheaper to fly, making traveling long distances more accessible to middle- and low-income Americans. The inevitable downside is that the bill also prohibits states from regulating the "price, route or service of an air carrier," which is why there are no laws protecting consumers from the current oligopoly of airlines.
What damage does this do? According to a Department of Justice complaint cited by ProPublica, a lack of competition allows major airlines to raise fees, limit services like meals, and eliminate some routes. United's treatment of the passenger, and its resulting mishandling of the PR nightmare, were appalling. But the larger issue is that airlines have too much power. In the short term, boycott United, yes. For the long term, however, have you considered socialism?
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