Why does flying suck so much?

Companies get away with bad behavior when we accept their excuses that there’s just no other way to run a business.

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You might not believe this, but I’m old enough to remember when flying was fun.

Now I’m sure you’ve got your own airline horror stories, which I hope you’ll share. But what happened to make flying such a nightmare?

The answer is simple: The same things happening across most industries. In fact, a close look at airlines reveals five of the biggest problems with our economy.

Number 1: Consolidation means fewer choices.

While there were once many more airlines, a series of mergers and acquisitions over the last three decades has left only four in control of about 80% of the market.

This kind of consolidation has been happening all over the economy. For example, four companies now control 80% of all beef production, and two control over 60% of all paper products. This lack of competition has led to:

Number 2: Companies charging more for less

Even before recent airfare spikes, air travel was getting more expensive because of new fees for things that used to be free, like in-flight meals, checked bags, or even carry-ons.

Spirit Airlines even charges $25 to print your boarding pass at a ticket counter! It’s just a piece of paper!

One of the ugliest ad-ons is the fee some airlines charge for families to sit together. That doesn’t even cost them anything!

Airlines are leading an economy-wide trend of adding often unexpected new charges to goods and services without adding value.

And you’re getting less in return. Airlines have cut an estimated 8 inches of legroom and two inches of seat width in the last two decades. Doesn’t bother me (I’m short), but many of you may feel the squeeze.

This parallels other industries where you’re paying more for less—just look at how cereal boxes, rolls of toilet paper, and candy bars are all shrinking.

Number 3: Exploiting workers

While their jobs have become more difficult, many flight attendants haven’t had a raise in years.

And a lot of their hardest work is totally unpaid, because most flight attendants don’t get paid during the boarding process. They’re off the clock until the plane’s doors close.

And if the flight is delayed, those are often extra hours for no extra money.

Again, this mirrors trends in the overall economy, where too many workers are pushed into unpaid overtime or made to do work or be on call during their off hours.

Number 4: The illusion of scarcity

Airlines pretend they have no choice but to raise prices, cut services, and limit payroll. But their profits are in the stratosphere. In the five years before the pandemic, the top 5 airlines were flush enough to pay shareholders $45 billion, largely through stock buybacks.

During the pandemic, they got a $54 billion bailout from taxpayers (you’re welcome).

In the years since, they’ve resumed flying high, with nearly $10 billion in net profit expected across the industry in 2023. They can afford to take care of workers and customers.

Whether it’s multi-millionaire movie moguls pretending they can’t afford to pay writers or a grocery chain blaming “inflation” for high prices while raking in record profits, this illusion of scarcity is a sham.

Number 5: Misdirected rage

Instead of being mad at the people at the top, we’ve been tricked into being mad at each other. Fights have broken out over whether it’s ok to recline a seat or who gets overhead bin space. But reclining’s only an issue because airlines intentionally put the seats too close together. And bin space is only running out because they’ve made it expensive to check bags—and also risky, with the rate of lost bags doubling over the last year.

Airlines are pitting us against each other the same way billionaires and their political lackeys pit groups against each other in society, hoping we’ll blame unions or immigrants or people of other races or religions or gender identities for why it’s so hard to get ahead, and that we won’t notice how much wealth and power is in the hands of so few.

So what do we do?

A lot of these problems could be solved with tougher antitrust enforcement—which we are starting to see. The Justice Dept is suing to block JetBlue from buying Spirit Airlines. We need that kind of anti-monopoly protection across the board.

Another part of the solution is unions. Airline workers are among the wave of American workers organizing to demand better pay and working conditions.

And then there’s your power as an informed consumer. Companies get away with bad behavior when we accept their excuses that there’s just no other way to run a business. They’re counting on us not knowing what’s really going on. So share this video, and share your airline stories in the comments.

Finally, try to be a little nicer to service workers and your fellow passengers—on planes and in life. After all, we’re all on this journey together.

Read it on Robert Reich’s blog.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.

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