After what amounts to a decades-long series of disasters, the American aviation industry is finally in a good place. Overcapacity and fare wars have been eliminated, redundant staff is gone, and with the economy improving, people are buying plane tickets again.
Which is exactly how United Airlines found itself dragging an unwilling customer off an overbooked flight to Louisville, Kentucky, incurring a massive PR fiasco and reminding us that the industry is likely to bounce forever between exploitative and unprofitable.
This particular case resonated with the public because it was unusual and egregious — a sumptuous blend of a moderately rare edge case doused with a hefty dose of poor judgment.
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But it also resonated because it felt, in many ways, not so unusual. Anyone who flies regularly has experienced the endless indignities of modern air travel — the security theater, the cramped seats, the delays, the missed flights, and all the rest. Making it particularly egregious is the reality that the crucial ingredient of consumer choice seems to be missing. Most of us have at one time or another sworn to ourselves that we will "never" again fly on one airline or another, only to discover that there are very few airlines one can switch to and that they all seem dismal in their own way.
The airline industry, unfortunately, suffers from some serious business model flaws — most notably very high fixed costs in the form of buying and maintaining aircraft, and the problem that a half-empty flight is almost as expensive to operate as a full one.
Most of us fondly remember a time in the not-so-distant past when the United States had many more airlines and much more vigorous competition between them. This was a true blessing for consumers, but it was genuinely unworkable economically — the consumer bounty was based on investors, bondholders, and unionized workers losing money.
So we're now shifting into an uncomfortable era of consolidation, diminished competition, higher prices, more profits, and fewer choices. And even if choice were revived by future policymakers, experience suggests that travelers will choose lower prices over higher quality, leaving air travel a perennially frustrating experience.