The airline industry needs some fresh competition. It’s shown itself to be deaf to the needs of its customers, as confirmed by a study released last month by Consumer Reports which polled 55,000 members who had recently taken airline flights.
The results underscore what we have been saying all along, that the increasing levying of nickel-and-dime fees is confusing and frustrating, and that “main cabin” seats are especially uncomfortable and, that no single airline offers better fares or service than any other.
Furthermore, the airlines continue their race to the bottom. When one introduces a new fee, the others quickly follow. When one installs smaller seats and reduces legroom, the others quickly follow. Is this not violating the anti-trust laws?
On that topic, the pitch of a coach airline seat – the distance from the back of one seat to the back of the one in front of it – has dropped from around 33 or 34 inches before 2001 to around 30 or 31 inches now. Seat width has also become narrower, with 17 inches a typical economy seat width, down from about 19 inches.
Is there currently enough competition among domestic airlines?
Not even close to enough. There was a time when there were a dozen major airlinesoperating, now there are only four.
Airlines: ‘How about letting the flying public decide voting with their wallets on 28 inch pitch, poor service and bag fees? Let the market decide!’
That’s a magical thought but in reality it doesn’t work. You can’t say, “I’d like to pay a little bit more and get 31-inch pitch and slightly less brusque service from the flight attendant please, but not as much as I’d have to pay for an exit row, two checked bags, and a three-course meal.”
Though the airline industry takes the position that “the market” should be allowed to decide, there is no real “market” since there is no meaningful difference among the various U.S. airlines when it comes to space, fees, etc.
This is the problem. A passenger may want to pay more for, say, a better seat but can’t justify the doubled cost of premium economy.
A loosening of “cabotage” restrictions, which currently prevent foreign airlines from flying between one U.S. city and another, could potentially buck this trend on a handful of routes.
Airlines: ‘Competition is fine right now!’
You mean competition for the highest profits and lowest service standards?
The problem is you get poor value for your money. Look at Europe for example. You can fly Ryanair for €10. In the U.S., you can fly Southwest for $59, and that’s regarded as a great deal.
The legacy airlines offer an even worse value for your money: high fares, nickel-and-dime fees and poor customer service.
Currently, customers don’t have much reasonable choice. All airlines basically say; once you pay us, you won’t get your money back. Even if we don’t provide you with the service you purchased. Even if we destroy your belongings. Even if we beat you up. Even if we force you to listen to a dog suffocating in the overhead bins or barking behind or in front of your seat. Even if you are allergic to dog or cat dander, we are not responsible.
Just as there was a backlash against imprisoning passengers for hours on tarmacs which resulted in the Three Hour Rule, soon there’ll be a Passenger Bill of Rights in the next FAA Reauthorization Act.
Airlines: ‘The safety record of the airlines is remarkable! Seat space is a low-priority, first-world issue.’
While the safety record of the airlines is remarkable, the market conditions and regulatory regime under which they operate are not producing what many consumers consider to be “fair” treatment.
At a time when the airlines are pushing for the repeal of a variety of consumer-protection measures, it is high time we travelers joined together and pushed back.
Airlines are also running amok when it comes to shaking down dollars out of passengers for junk fees – or what the industry calls “ancillary revenue – meaning nickel-and-dime fees levied for everything from checked bags to reserving a seat in advance.
Given the success of its lobbying efforts, nothing is likely to change in the public’s favor unless we travelers, whether business or leisure, petition our elected officials to rein in this industry that seems hell-bent on raking in maximum revenue while providing minimum service.
Short of a return to the days of almost total control under the Civil Aeronautics Board (during which the industry enjoyed a greater number of profitable years than under the current deregulated scheme), legislation ensuring pricing transparency, modestly comfortable seating and some rational, almost-all-in pricing would be welcomed by those of us who travel by air.
Even better would be legislation modeled after the European Union’s EU 261, which sets compensation levels for airline passengers who are delayed. The U.S. airlines should do the same by enacted legislation.
With the exception of force majeure events, delayed passengers are eligible for between €125 and €600 in compensation from their carrier depending on the length of their flight and the length of the delay.
But first, baby steps
God forbid people should have access to competitively priced flights and humane treatment. A corporation’s first responsibility is to its shareholders, and that right there says it all.