The Unfriendly Skies

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was implemented to remove government restrictions on the airline industry with regard to schedules, fares, and routes by allowing the airline companies to compete more effectively in the free market. History now shows that it has had the opposite effect on the industry.

By 1983, Frank Lorenzo and his Texas Air Group had acquired Continental Airlines, a legacy carrier that had been operating since 1938, and merged it with a regional carrier, Texas International. He promptly took the airline in bankruptcy, breaking the union’s hold on the workers and creating a slimmed-down version of Continental that emerged as a “no frills” carrier.

Suddenly, air travel took on a new persona: what was once glamorous and exciting was now akin to riding a bus. Other legacy carriers such as Pan Am and Eastern Airlines would be driven out of business, as was Braniff International and Frontier Airlines. Before the century was out, TWA would be acquired by American Airlines, and Northwest and Western Airlines would be acquired by Delta. Dozens of low-cost carriers emerged onto the scene, but lacking the financial resources of larger airlines, many failed as fare wars decimated the industry. Entering into competition in the free market has indeed affected the industry, but not in the way it was intended. Survival of the fittest was becoming the norm rather than the exception.

In the 21st century, the ride became even bumpier when the 9/11 attacks forced difficult choices on the airlines, and coupled with new security procedures that bordered on being obtrusive, the traveling public began to openly criticize air travel as inconvenient and cumbersome.

The second decade of the new century has seen a new strategy in the airlines’ quest for profit: the fees charged for services once included in the price of a ticket. Traditionally, if pricing is successful with one carrier, other carriers will follow suit. Passengers now pay for every bag checked, and to counter this fee passengers began to carry on their luggage. Expensive in-flight meals and snacks have prompted passengers to purchase them from an airport vendor and carry them on board, opting out on the $15 sandwich and $7.50 bag of chips offered for sale.

However, the extra fees go beyond the aircraft and begin with the booking process. Customers may be charged a fee if booking their flight with a reservations agent instead of booking online. Change fees apply if a passenger chooses to travel on a flight or date different from the ones booked, even if trying to fly on an earlier flight that has extra seats available.

Ryanair, a low-cost carrier based in Ireland, briefly considered charging for the use of the lavatory, and an industry insider observed, “if they could get away with it, Ryanair would remove the seats from their aircraft and have people stand.” In what may be an industry low, Ryanair is considering adding porn to their in-flight entertainment lineup.

The traveling public has used ingenuity in avoiding first-round fees, to include wearing multiple layers of clothing and downloading movies to their iDevice to avoid the charge of inflight entertainment. Alas, as passengers grew accustomed the these expenses, Spirit Air lowered the boom, imposing a fee for carry-on luggage. To add insult to injury, passengers who fail to pay for their carry-on bags in advance may pay as much as $100 per bag at the departure gate. World without end.

Reacting to the sudden influx of carry-ons, some airlines are retrofitting their entire fleet with larger bins, further eroding any hope of profit. FedEx, seizing an opportunity, offers a product that will ship your luggage to your destination and back to your home when your trip is over. Enticing passengers with rewards such as bypassing the baggage carousel and not having to lug your bags from gate to gate, FedEx is marketing their new service as an unbeatable convenience.

Empty cargo holds and full overhead compartments lead to another issue. The weight and balance of the aircraft will be impacted, as drag caused by an uneven distribution will result in additional fuel consumption. Maybe the airlines will need to begin stowing babies in the overhead compartments to ensure proper weight distribution. Moreover, passengers on some airlines will be paying a premium for a window or aisle seat, resulting in traveling companions being separated on board, including parents and children.

Everyone understands the importance of letting the free market take its course, but when markets become abusive to customers, clients, consumers, or whatever you choose to call people being served poorly, something is wrong, and history proves how damaging this phenomenon can be. Something needs to be done. Who will take the first major steps in transforming an increasingly mercenary and decaying industry?