The downside of deregulation: Turbulence on Air Oligarchy

     The New York City skyline gives backdrop to a United Airlines airplane taxing at Newark Liberty International Airport, Wednesday, April 12, 2017, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, file)

    The New York City skyline gives backdrop to a United Airlines airplane taxing at Newark Liberty International Airport, Wednesday, April 12, 2017, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, file)

    “Sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight.”

    Yeah sure. As if.

    We’ve all heard that crock so many times that by now we’re too numb to laugh. Enjoyment is ephemeral when the seat in front of us is inches away and our legs have more twists than the free pretzels. And that’s the good news, because at least you’re airborne. Bad news is a cop ordering you to “reaccommodate.”

    Granted, the odds of being booted from an overbooked plane are tiny. But the bloodying of that paying United customer, hauling him off like a slab of meat, was vivid evidence of what ails the airline industry in this 39th year of failed deregulation.

    Turns out, the so-called magic of the “free market” has given us an oligarchy that limits customer choice (four airlines control 85 percent of the domestic market), slashes routes and flights and amenities, adds more seats per plane, and basically treats us like cattle, all for the purpose of maximizing profit.

    And for that, we can thank both political parties, because the injuries suffered by that doctor, and all the indignities we routinely endure, can be traced back to an ill-fated bipartisan consensus forged in 1978, with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. The lead culprits were the Democrats. They controlled Congress – Ted Kennedy was a key sponsor – and President Jimmy Carter signed the bill.

    Back then, everyone believed that the government’s regulation of the airlines was a bad thing, that the federal Civil Aeronautics Board was hampering the airlines – taking too long to approve new routes, hampering their expansion, nitpicking their customer service. So the ruling Democrats (applauded by the Republicans) opted to deregulate, figuring that such a move would unleash price and route competition. The feds would continue to oversee flight safety, but that’s all. Everything else – including quality of service – was entrusted to the airlines.

    Well, as Joseph (Catch-22) Heller once wrote, “Nothing succeeds as planned.”

    The deregulation law specifically stated, as one of its goals, “the avoidance of unreasonable industry concentration which would tend to allow one or more air carriers to unreasonably increase prices, reduce services, or exclude competition.” And yet that’s precisely what has happened – because virtually every Justice Department in every administration, from Reagan to Obama, has allowed the airlines to merge and consolidate. Lax antitrust enforcement has been bipartisan.

    Indeed, as recently as 2014, Obama’s Justice lawyers wanted to block the proposed merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways; they noted that “increasing consolidation among large airlines has hurt passengers…The major airlines have copied each other in raising fares, imposing new fees in travelers, reducing or eliminating service, and downgrading amenities.”

    They merely confirmed what experts had long observed. In 2012, the nonpartisan New America think tank took a long look at the airlines and concluded: “The net result of deregulation is that the five-member Civil Aeronautics Board has, in effect, been replaced by the chief executive officers of the largest five or six airlines.” Flying customers are being “manipulated by a handful of unconstrained monopolists.” All told, “we now find ourselves at a moment when nearly all the promises of (deregulation) have either proved false or run their course.”

    So did Obama’s Justice Department kill the American-US Airways merger? Nope. The industry reportedly hired lobbyists who were well-connected to Obama insiders. They got the merger.

    Thanks to that merger, and all the others, we’re stuck with the consequences. Mostly, it’s about the amenities we don’t have anymore. This may shock younger readers, but there once was a time – especially prior to deregulation – when we could buy a fully refundable ticket, change flights without paying a hefty penalty, eat an actual meal, sleep with a blanket on a short-haul flight, choose between a number of airlines serving the same route, and stretch our legs sideways because some of the seats were actually empty.

    Which brings us to what happened to the bloodied doctor.

    When was the last time you flew without hearing the announcement, “We’re expecting a full flight”? The consolidated airlines offer fewer choices and fewer flights, so naturally the planes are packed to the max. They routinely overbook to ensure that they’re packed. And that ratchets up the odds that they’ll ask or compel paid customers to take a hike.

    They have all the power. But who looks out for us? The New America report concluded: “The quasi-public utility nature of the transportation industry suggests the need for enlightened regulation in the public interest.” True that, but on this issue, alas, both parties are hostage to the corporate sector. Fasten your seat belts for continued turbulence.

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    The Trump regime’s flip-flops, latest in a series:

    CIA director Mike Pompeo said yesterday, “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service…It overwhelmingly focuses on the United States while seeking support from antidemocratic countries.”

    House member Mike Pompeo exultantly tweeted last July, “Need further proof that the fix was in from President Obama on down? Busted: 19,252 Emails from DNC Leaked by WikiLeaks.”

    Trump on the campaign trail last year, repeatedly: “We love WikiLeaks!”

    Need I point out that Pompeo actually confirmed yesterday that his boss won the White House with the help of a hostile intelligence service? Are Americans truly too numb to care?

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and Facebook.

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