After I wrote about another horrible flying experience last week, my friend Jordy Jordahl, who flies more than I do and who is about two inches taller (he feels my pain about shrinking airline seats), sent me a link to an article in The New Yorker, which explains it all.
The thrust of the article is that the airlines make a killing on all those special fees for checking your bag or getting an extra few inches of seat space or sitting closer to the front of the plane. And the economics of special fees is that they won't work unless the basic service is miserable. In other words, the airlines have created an actual incentive for themselves to provide a bad experience so that more of their customers will pay to buy out of it.
The problem seems to be that we are in a deregulated environment where competition has been reduced through mergers.
So, what's the solution? I'm not confident that more regulation is the answer because it seems that in the current political environment the regulated tend to coopt the regulators. And I do like the fact that competition has provided travelers with some pretty good deals if they're willing to put up with the indignities of flying chattel class.
Why not use the power of the marketplace? As one consumer who flies only occasionally, I mean nothing to the airline industry. They take every opportunity to make that abundantly clear to me. But what if airline customers formed their own customers' union? We would agree to fly any airline that met our prices and conditions of travel. It's basically just using the power of the marketplace on behalf of customers.
There is a National Association of Airline Passengers, but they're a traditional Washington lobbying group, and I don't think the answer is in government right now, especially given what seems like an endless Republican majority in Congress. But the answer might be in using the power of consumers to get what they want or simply take their business someplace else.
The projection is that there will be 3.6 billion airline passengers in 2016. Of course, that counts lots of individuals who fly several times a year, so let's say for the sake of argument that there will be 1 billion people who fly at least once. If only 1% joined the customers' union, that's 10 million people. That's a block of revenue that the airlines would need to pay attention to.