The Justice Department has threatened an inquiry into whether airlines have colluded to keep fares high. Isn’t the answer obvious? Of course they have! How else could they have grown to their recent pinnacle of profitability, even as their customers have come to curse them with a vehemence they once reserved for TV cable providers? The carriers’ understandable efforts to boost a sagging bottom line began decades ago with changes in ticketing policy that made it prohibitively expensive to modify or cancel a reservation. Thus did they turn a service that used to be free, and which remains free at most other service-oriented businesses, including hotels, into a profit center. More recently, the carriers have nickle-and-dimed passengers to death, charging extra for each checked bag and even for items stored in the overhead bin. At the same time, seat widths and leg room have shrunk to the point where it is no longer possible to fly comfortably unless you’re on a first class ticket. Even then, the first-class experience is no better in many instances than the economy class amenities of 20 years ago. My main experience is with Frontier, which, to create the illusion of more leg room, recently began to install “streamlined” seats that feature a wafer-thin layer of padding with about as much give as a surgical table.
As any passenger could tell you, the airlines have been getting away with murder, even as they’ve become ruthlessly successful cost-cutters. How long will their earnings hot-streak last? I wrote here a month ago, when the airline stocks appeared to be topping, that no business can continue to be successful if it becomes as arrogantly unresponsive to the needs of its customers as the airlines have. These days, passengers are more eager than ever for a return to basic fares without all of the deceitful and infuriating add-ons. With travelers as frustrated as they are angry, the industry has never been more ripe for competition. Shouldn’t we therefore expect some upstart to provide a better flying experience for one’s travel dollar?
Frontier’s Decline and Fall
For my money, Denver-based Frontier used to do this better than any other airline. However, in the hands of William Franke, the savagely efficient bean-counter who transformed Frontier’s Airbus fleet into flying cattle cars, Frontier arguably has become the worst of the bunch. I say that as a Frontier ‘Summit’ flyer who formerly received such free perks as two checked bags, in-flight television, alcoholic drinks and priority baggage-handling. Now, even soft drinks cost $2.00, and the only freebie that remains is for a single piece of carry-on luggage. Flight times and destinations have also been drastically reduced — a fact of life for fliers on all airlines — so that it has become necessary to depart at some ungodly hour, or to fly to some hellacious airport such as the one in Trenton, or Wilmington, in order to get a decent fare.
Southwest and Virgin are the carriers perhaps best suited to reviving competition — the first because of its upstart roots, the second because of the customer-friendly policies of its flamboyant founder, Richard Branson. But it remains to be seen whether competition is even possible in an industry that has only been partially deregulated and whose fee structures have attempted with diminishing success to mask the true cost of air travel. That Americans can no longer afford to travel in the style of economy-class passengers of just a generation ago suggests the extent to which our standard of living has fallen. I have never felt this more acutely than during a visit to the railroad museum in Sacramento, CA, a few years ago. Step into a typical 1950s dining car, with its bone-china place settings, sterling silver flatware, linen tablecloths and crystal stemware, to understand how steeply public amenities have declined over the last few decades. The steak-and-potatoes entree was $3.00 then, but it would cost $100 to duplicate it today. Instead, we have Amtrak and the airlines as symbols of America’s wrenching economic decline. This narrative would seem to be contradicted by recent reports that the nation’s wealth had grown to a record $85 trillion. Strip out inflated home values and share prices pumped by Fed funny money, however; then factor in future liabilities for Social Security and socialized healthcare, and we are just Greece on a vastly larger scale.
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