Airline business only good for the airlines

by | May 15, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 2 comments

The other day I wanted to change an airline ticket. I was told it would cost $250, plus whatever fare increase the new ticket would bring. So I skipped it.

Later that day, when I checked in online, I was informed the same flight was oversold and was asked whether I might switch to another flight and for how much. The options went as high as $500 in free travel.

So, let’s see. If I wanted to change it myself, I got socked with made-up fees. But if they wanted to change it, they would pay me.

This makes as much sense as anything in the increasing greed of the airline industry, which borders on the obscene. Remember that Monty Python movie where the obese man just keeps eating mountains of food? That’s the airline business in America.

And it’s not eating peanuts.

A recent report showed the airlines enjoyed another record year of profits in 2015, and when I say record, I mean turn on the faucets and let the money rain down. U.S. airline companies combined for an after-tax profit of nearly $26 billion last year — which is more than three times what they made the year before, and the highest profit in nearly 40 years.

Those figures, of course, come from the U.S. Department of Transportation. If it were up to the airlines, they’d tell you things were tight, dangerous, difficult, and they needed to keep fares high because of the fickle fuel industry.

Except fuel hasn’t been this cheap in years. The airlines are making billions off of that. But have you seen your fares go down? Barely. The moment a pipeline breaks halfway around the world, airlines race to increase fares, telling you they have to, it’s the fuel.

What’s their excuse now?

More regulation needed

There is no excuse, because no one demands accountability. Despite a 30% jump in passenger complaints last year over the previous year, the government stays hands off, even on the potentially dangerous issue of legroom, which has virtually disappeared. The airlines can’t deny wedging more people into less space. Yet last month, the Senate voted down a bill that would have ended any more reductions in seat sizes. The general attitude seemed to be that the government shouldn’t interfere in private business.

But is flying really a “private business?” It sure wasn’t when the airlines raced for bailouts following 9/11. Suddenly, flying was a vital national issue — which is why billions in taxpayer money went to prop it up.

Airlines are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Airports get built with taxpayer money. Security comes from government agencies. So why do our elected officials run and hide despite hardships on fliers from unreasonable wait times, stress-inducing conditions, onerous security demands and fees for everything from carrying on a bag to picking an aisle seat.

Oh, yes. The fees. Like the banks who suddenly discovered a guzzling profit source from ATMs, airlines have realized there is no end to profits if you charge for every step of travel. So you pay to eat. You pay to get on early. You pay for every bag. You pay for an extra inch of legroom. You pay to change tickets, to switch to a wide-open flight, or to cancel and not fly at all.

Our country’s airlines earned nearly $7 billion in such fees last year. Seven billion! In mostly made-up charges.

Why wouldn’t the government consider that?

Out of control

Because in the end, money rules politics. So while lobbying efforts have thwarted the odd congressperson who dares to propose a legroom bill, they have also pushed a consolidation in the airline business that has virtually destroyed competition.

One buys up the other, and service gets worse and more expensive. Consider this: Since the 1970s, Mohawk Air, Pacific Southwest, Piedmont, America West, TWA and US Airways have all been merged, purchased and rolled into one company, American Airlines — which last year topped the complaints list from passengers.

There are basically three behemoth airlines left in this nation. Our government had to approve their consolidation. But coming down on insane fees, illogical pricing, and the physically limiting travel conditions that lead to dangerous, raging arguments — that, our lawmakers don’t want to touch?

Flying is a miserable experience these days. Arrive two hours early to land two hours late, squeezed by fees, security and the seat in front of you. If other businesses ran things this way, they would be drummed into oblivion. But the airlines have you pinned in, literally, and the fewer the competitors, the less pressure on them to change.

Friendly skies? They’re not even blue anymore. Just green for the airlines, and angry red for everyone else.


  1. mercedes3

    I don’t travel by air very often. When I read news accounts about the airlines’ financial woes, they hook me right at my heart. I feel I should fly somewhere just to help them out. I have to quit taking the media so seriously and instead appreciate the research you do.

  2. Mitch Albom

    I know. We want the airline industry to be strong and competitive. But there has to be a way to do that without making its customers miserable.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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