Airline Profitability Now Hinges on Your “Calculated Suffering”

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If you, like millions of Americans, had to go through the perennial nightmare of taking an airplane to get somewhere over the hallway, this information will not shock you: The airline industry is unbelievably horrible to its customers. This isn’t just casual observation or kvetching about how in the good old days, water fountains were full of martinis and children were ten percent nicer. In an incredibly enraging piece in The New Yorker, Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who campaigned to be lieutenant governor this year, explains that no, misery is the whole business model. Airlines now make billions of dollars charging for services that used to be basic competence. That means that they make bank from those petty little “upgrades” that make your life just a little bit more pleasant while rocketing through the sky in a tin can full of recycled air, like checking your bag and giving you some extra legroom. For the past seven years, these fees are the fastest-growing source of income for airlines.

This is just as terrible as it sounds, because, as Wu explains, the only way that airlines can make money on this is by making sure that the basic level of service and comfort is so terrible that you’re willing to shell out an extra $25-$65 to just make it a little bit better.

…In order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins. The necessity of degrading basic service provides a partial explanation for the fact that, in the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience.

Not just less-than luxe, dudes. Intolerable. That starts with legroom (per an expert Wu consults,”The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s”) and moves  all the way to boarding, which has become an inefficient process of letting various member levels on the plan first. (Wu again: “Airlines lack a real incentive to fundamentally improve boarding for everyone—by, for example, investing in methods such as filling both ends of an airplane at once. It would make life better and also defeat the status racket.”) If you’re one of the smug ones sitting there thinking “Well, I fly JetBlue” then Wu has a message for you: Nope. The airline was once distinguished in the field for actually providing competent reasonable service (and honestly, how sad is that? No one gives restaurants awards for not poisoning their diners) buckled to financial pressure this fall and joined every other airline by cutting legroom and adding checked bag fees.

It is insane that we put up with this nonsense, but because these practices have become so widely adapted, there is pretty much no way around them if you want to take a flight. I’m sure that the timing this particular piece was not an accident. I in fact read it while, like dozens of other hapless suckers, I was in the midst of a hellish airline trip back from my parents’ house, crowded around an electric socket with other passengers, all of us somewhere between bemoaning our existences and gritting our teeth and figuring that there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. The misery of airline flight isn’t actually news to anyone, but seeing it laid out so starkly led to two main questions: When are we getting to work on those bullet trains, again? And why, oh why, didn’t we elect Tim Wu?

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