Airline Collusion

So the Justice Department is investigating major airlines for colluding to fix prices and keep them high. Is anyone surprised by this? Is anyone feeling sorry for the airlines? Are we leaping to their defense against an intrusive government? Nope. To the contrary, most people I know are applauding this action and cheering.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating major airlines on charges of price fixing.Why? Because the airlines have done an outstanding job of alienating their customers by making the experience of flying as unpleasant and difficult as possible. In pursuit of ever greater profits these companies have consistently introduced restrictive policies and higher pricing that could not possibly have a positive effect on the customer experience.

I discussed this before in the post “Peak Scheduling Will Make Air Travel Worse” so it’s nice to see the Justice Department getting on board, so to speak.

The Hub System

First came the hub system that reduced the number of direct flights, subjecting passengers to more frequent delays, the risk of missing a connection, and longer flight times. A year ago, United Airlines abandoned me and many other passengers for five hours at Chicago O’Hare with continual delays. Gate staffers were surly and uncommunicative. I wrote about that one in Alaska: There and Back Again.

Then the airlines:

  • Reduced the number of flights to make sure planes were full
  • Added more seats to maximize passenger load
  • Shrank leg room to add more seats
  • Eliminated meal service and replaced it with a bag of pretzels
  • Eliminated the bag of pretzels
  • Charged for “snack boxes” on the plane
  • Charged for checking baggage, thus incentivizing passengers to bring their luggage on board.
  • Subjected passengers to boarding delays as people tried to fit oversized bags into undersized overhead compartments.
  • Charged for preferred seating, like exit rows where there is more leg room.
  • Charged for advance boarding so people could get first dibs on the overhead compartments
"Service Pig" flying for free

“Service Pig” flying for free

The airlines could not possibly have thought their customers would be happy with this non-service so the only conclusion we can draw is that they don’t care. Or worse.

The only way to get people to pay for preferred seating or advance boarding, after all, is by making the base service so difficult and unpleasant that customers will shell out more of their travel dollars to move up a level. Next, no doubt, come pigs and chickens in the cabin. Oh, wait, CBS This Morning tells us we’re already there. Pigs can not only fly in the cabin, they fly for free!

Three-Hour Layover – Not

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I flew to Savannah, GA by way of Charlotte, NC on U.S. Airways, now part of the American Airlines Group. As originally scheduled, we had a three-hour layover in Charlotte. I wasn’t happy about this but I figured that we could get a nice dinner before boarding the connecting flight. Here’s what really happened:

  • Our flight to Charlotte was delayed by 45 minutes. We took advantage of this time to grab a sandwich—and it’s a very good thing we did.
  • We boarded the flight but it didn’t leave the gate for a long time. Then it taxied out to the runway and sat, again for a very long time. The pilot did not, at any point, advise us of the reason for the delay or give us any idea when we would be taking off.
  • The plane finally left Boston and the flight to Charlotte was smooth and untroubled. Our layover time had shrunk considerably, though.
  • We taxied to the terminal and once again the plane stopped. At this point, our three-hour time frame had turned into a 30-minute layover but I wasn’t concerned. We still had time to make our connection. But the plane didn’t move even though we could see the terminal.
  • Finally the pilot came on the horn and indicated that our gate had been given to another flight. We had a new gate assignment but another plane was blocking our access to the gate. Time passed and the plane still didn’t move. My heart rate increased.
  • American Airlines, peak scheduling, running through airport, rush hour

    Wear your running shoes to make an American Airlines flight

    Finally we reached the gate with about 15 minutes to make our connection. The pilot could easily have asked every passenger who was not making a connection to remain seated so that those of us who were could exit the plane more quickly. The uncommunicative pilot did not do this so we had to wait while everyone took their overloaded carry-ons out of the overhead bins and bumped their way off the plane.

  • Sprinting from the end of one concourse, across the terminal and down to the end of another concourse, we arrived just as the Savannah flight was boarding.
  • We got on the plane, which then sat at the gate for another 30 minutes before taking off. This time the pilot at least told us that weather was the cause.
  • We arrived at our hotel at about 1 a.m. after two flights from hell.

No Overstatement

This is an experience that far too many people have and it occurs on a daily basis. I don’t think it’s overstatement to say that few people will be rooting for the airlines in the Justice Department investigation on airline collusion. Deregulating the airlines was supposed to create more competition, lower pricing and better services but airline mergers since then have only made the customer experience worse.

Indeed, we would love to see more competition come in from overseas airlines that still understand the concept of customer service. Let @Americanair, @UnitedAirlines, @Deltairworld, @Southwestair, @JetBlue and others compete with the likes of SwissAir, Emirates, JAL, British Air and FinnAir and we’ll see if things improve.

Until then, Go Justice!