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Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Where Airlines Beat Us With a Rock

April 13, 2017 -- Let us not mince words: Airline deregulation has failed. Our 30-year experiment allowing airlines to run their own affairs has left us with little commercial choice, uncomfortable coach cabins and overpriced premium ones and an industry that thinks it can have cops forcibly oust us from our seats or cancel flights for days after a rainstorm.

Let us not mince words: The government is incapable of efficiently reregulating the airlines. Our 15-year experiment with the Transportation Security Administration proves that. It has left us with a federal agency that refuses to serve taxpayers, is populated with sexual deviants and tin-pot apparatchiks and believes passengers and airlines must bend to whatever bizarre whim enters its collective bureaucratic mind.

Let us not mince words: We are fucked. If you learned nothing else this week, understand that we are fucked.

Or let me put it this way: We are between a rock and a hard place where airlines will beat us with a rock to reclaim a seat for which we've already paid and already occupy. A place where an airline chief executive will get on an earnings call with gullible securities analysts and boldly lie about a five-day crisis that disrupted the lives and schedules of millions of flyers.

United Airlines' atrocious treatment of Dr. David Dao last Sunday evening in Chicago needs little amplification. Using the power vested in itself thanks to the contract of carriage that its lawyers wrote, United deemed Dao unworthy of the seat he paid for and legally occupied. When he refused United's order to vacate, United called the airport police, who are legally required to do its bidding. When the cops began to bludgeon Dao, United did nothing. For the better part of two days, it then claimed Dao was at fault for his eviction and, by extension, the inexplicable beating he received. Finally, when the entire world turned on United, its chief executive went on television and piously promised that he'd make sure no passenger would be assaulted by police the next time United chose to evict someone from the seat they had purchased and occupied.

The situation at Delta Air Lines does require some additional detail. As I wrote on Sunday, Delta turned a five-hour storm into a five-day crisis of IT failures, broken crew assignments and untold throngs stuck in airports, stranded at hotels or waiting endlessly on hold. It then lied day after day--to customers, the public and the stenographers in mainstream media. On Wednesday chief executive Ed Bastian, a missing person during the crisis, opened Delta's first quarter earnings call and announced the "unprecedented" storm would reduce second quarter profit by $125 million. Then he lied to the people who supposedly protect and inform shareholders.

"It wasn't a question that the IT didn't work," during the storm, Bastian claimed. "It actually worked and it worked as they designed. It got overwhelmed by the volume."

That's like saying every diet you've ever been on worked and worked as it was designed, but it got overwhelmed by the volume of food you ate. It is a blatant, bald-faced lie, the kind of lie SkyGods like Bastian and Munoz are trained to tell with a straight face.

The Dao problem is relatively easy to fix. United can pay the doctor millions of dollars in restitution and the Transportation Department could promulgate a simple rule: Once an airline boards a passenger and he/she is seated, they cannot be moved or removed except for a legal transgression. Simple, clean, efficient.

United will probably end up paying the millions to Dao, whose lawyer said he suffered a concussion and a broken nose and lost two teeth. The chances of the DOT protecting passengers with a simple rule against harassment after boarding? I'd say less than zero given the current Administration's approach to government regulation.

But we can't fix the problem of Bastian, who, like most of the SkyGods before him, literally lies about the weather. Airline bosses have no respect for passengers, no respect for the truth and, frankly, no respect for free markets, competition or fair play.

We need to reregulate because airline deregulation has thrown up a long line of despicable people like Munoz and Bastian. The SkyGods are convinced they are above any law, beyond any truth and exempt from the common bounds of decency.

We need to regulate for other reasons, too.

Alfred Kahn and the framers of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 expected more competition. We haven't gotten it. Four carriers now control 80 percent of our traffic.

They expected innovation. We haven't gotten it--unless, of course, you consider innovation to be brutally tight coach seating and Basic Economy fares so repulsive that airlines are profiting because travelers are paying up to book away from them.

They expected lower fares. We haven't gotten them when you consider an honest comparison of what you got for your fare dollar then and what your fare dollar buys now.

Most important of all, Kahn and company expected a comparatively free market to force carriers to be better and more responsive. And we surely don't have that as Doctor Dao and any of you stranded by Delta's meltdown last week can attest.

Flying sucks and it is getting worse very quickly. Dozens of airports have fallen off the route map, hubs are clogged, airport clubs are jammed and the Supreme Court has literally empowered carriers to cheat us if they so desire. Airlines horde gates to keep out competitors. And, oh, yeah, the great on-time performance racked up by the carriers lately is Mussolini-like sleight of hand. Short flights require 20 minutes more now than they did in 1978. Transcon flights now often have an extra hour of schedule padding.

There is only one solution to a system that is this fundamentally broken. Reregulation.

But that is no solution at all. The 15-year-old TSA has proven that in spades. If the government can't manage security efficiently when it has almost unlimited power and billions of dollars at its disposal, how can we expect an enlightened regulatory environment?

Reregulating airlines won't make the planes run on-time. It may simplify the fare structure and, maybe, restore some civility and space to coach. But our prices will skyrocket. And, let's be honest, we know how it'll work in the end. The airlines will buy access to the regulators and, metaphorically, we'll all become David Dao. The airlines will lobby and bribe their way into control of the regulatory environment and the bureaucrats. And they'll use both to beat us as surely and completely as those Chicago cops beat the hapless Dao.

As I said at the top, let us not mince words: We are fucked.


This column is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.