If capitalism worked, you wouldn’t get on an airplane.

by Berck

Much has been said by much smarter people than I about the idiocy of the TSA. There’s some vague evidence that industry groups are finally starting to realize that it’s likely the entire industry is being harmed by the incompetency of the U.S. government. But, I think, that’s only part of the problem. Once the traveler gets past the TSA, there’s still an onslaught of harassment he must suffer, much of it at the hands of the airlines themselves. Yet people are still flying.

The airlines are making money by treating their customers like shit, and while there’s much complaining, no one seems willing to do anything about. While the airlines were still regulated, nearly everything about the travel experience was better. Post-deregulation, the airline industry is now safer and cheaper. These are the only two areas that have shown improvement: everything else has gotten worse. I doubt that safety has been seriously improved by de-regulation, but suspect that’s primarily a result of better technology, better training, and a better understanding of what it takes to fly safely.

The list of crimes perpetrated by the airlines is lengthy. There’s the beyond-saturated flight schedules that have pushed ATL, ORD, JFK, LGA, EWR (and others) well beyond the number of aircraft those airports can handle if there’s more than 1 cloud in the sky. The common 5 hour “weather delays” have nothing to do with weather except that the airports can’t handle the number of scheduled planes. Planes can still get in and out, but the spacing between them has to be such not all the scheduled flights can still operate in the time allotted. There’s no economic incentive to fly fewer flights with bigger planes so those airports can work.

Next, the constantly overbooked flights. The airlines keep capacity at a bare minimum in order to keep prices down, and then overbook those flights by the maximum legally allowable 10%. As long as all airlines do this, (and they all do), the only choice for the customer is simply to not fly, or purchase a first class seat, which are not allowed to be overbooked.

Then, there’s the matter of the absolutely awful state of airports themselves, which is generally the responsibility of the airlines. JetBlue’s new terminal in JFK is one of the only exceptions, and it’s only barely an exception. There’s not enough seating at any gate for the number of people that are expected to wait for an aircraft. The traveler is, of course, expected to get the airport extraordinarily early, because the airlines are masters at wasting their customers time. What seating there is, is miserably uncomfortable. Furthermore, the astronomical rent on space for restaurants, combined with HMS Hosts’s monopoly on every airport food operation across the country leads to insane food prices. There isn’t enough room to walk. The gate areas are invariably hot and stuffy. Airlines are wholly uninterested in providing basic amenities at the gate that would make sense such as: power outlets for computers and phones, free (or even existent, in some cases) wifi. Worse, you have no choice but to either wear headphones/earplugs, or be bombarded with news/advertising from airport CNN. Every few minutes, you have to listen to an announcement that tells you that your car may be ticketed or towed, that your belongings may be confiscated or destroyed, and the threat level is at orange. By the 6,300th such announcement, it seriously amounts to torture. Sure you can wear headphones, but then you can’t talk to whoever you’re traveling with. 95% of the announcements made regarding flights are useless at best, and when any information about delayed flights could be useful, the airlines tend to lie if they say anything at all. Furthermore, now, when you walk down pretty much any major concourse across america, credit card companies YELL at you to DEMAND that you stop at their table and sign up for a credit card for “free flights”. In Atlanta this weekend, there were a minimum of two people doing this in every concourse.

Once you get on the plane, there’s often not enough room for a normal sized human to sit. Airlines and airplanes vary wildly in their seat pitch, but it rarely seems to be a factor for people when they purchase tickets. The temperature is usually way too hot, especially on the ground, because the airlines want to save a few bucks rather than run the APU to keep the cabin at a comfortable temperature. In the air, I suspect it’s because most flight attendants are elderly women who chill easily. The flight crew demands that you remain seated for most of a 4 hour flight because otherwise you might sprain an ankle, and the airline might get sued. (Yes, this is why the seatbelt sign stays on. There’s no incentive for the captain to turn it off, and every incentive for him to leave it on.) The flight attendants tend to be getting more and more aggressive about whatever the latest nonsensical regulation might be. Airlines are now subjecting their passengers to forced advertising ON THE PLANES, either with TV screens in the seats, or a 5-minute advertising spiel for credit cards before they serve you a few ounces of a drink. The gall here is simply astounding. You have to BUY a ticket, THEN sit through advertising that cannot be escaped!

As an airline pilot, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these things, and I think it’s all pretty good evidence that capitalism doesn’t work for the airline industry. People will, in general, put up with an insane amount of crap because there really aren’t many alternatives. There’s no viable rail system, and the country is too big to drive across for business travel.

As I’ve said, the only airline that’s done anything to even recognize there’s a problem is JetBlue, and they’re only marginally better than the others. And only any help if you want to go to New York or Florida. JetBlue customers are some of the first that actively prefer JetBlue to other airlines, for reasons totally unrelated to loyalty rewards. It’s possible that things have gotten bad enough that JetBlue is able to make a market out of doing slightly better, but it’s only slightly better.

From my perspective, I would like flying to be as pleasant an experience as possible so people are encouraged to fly, pilots will be in demand, and I can get a job.

Yes, it’s amazing that we can put people into airplanes, fly them around the world at astounding speeds with very little death or injury. It’s also amazing that we can do it for such little money. But isn’t it time we figured out how to treat passengers like human beings?

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