I’m old enough to remember comedienne Lily Tomlin in her prime. She had a routine on Saturday Night Live (when it was actually funny) that was the height of true comedy. Her character’s attitude could be summed up in one quote,
“We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.”
Back in the 1970’s before the breakup of Ma Bell, the state of telecommunications in the U.S. was horrid. The service was expensive and without any drive to innovate. Ma Bell was a utility monopoly granted by the Federal government which provided all the customer service of a hungry wolverine.
Breaking up Bell was the first step towards the telecommunications revolution we have today. Technology was always going to destroy Bell’s monopoly. The breakup was an acknowledgment of that reality.
Today we are thirty-six years on from Reagan’s showdown with the air traffic controllers’ union but that whiff of deregulation has dissipated. Today the airlines are more tightly bound to the government than they ever were thanks to a ruthless combination of corporate lobbying and the rise of the Security Theatre State at airports in the wake of 9/11.
And airline service today is rapidly approaching the same indifference nee hostility that the phone companies exhibited when I was a kid. The incident last week of the man being dragged off a United Airlines flight shined a light of very uncomfortable truth on an industry that treats its customers as inconveniences at best and criminals at worst.
Last month my mother died. I don’t want your sympathy. It was a kindness for her and our relationship was pretty much over by my decision. Be that as it may I booked a flight back to New York for the funeral anyway, because some things in this life you just do.
The flight schedule left me with a tight connection (35 minutes) from Detroit to Newburgh, NY to make the funeral. And that’s where the trouble started.
We were forty minutes late taking off from Atlanta because one of the stewardesses had a “problem with one of her bags” and we had to wait for a replacement. I spoke with the flight staff while waiting and during the flight to have them help me make my connection.
I was sitting next to an Army reservist that also had a tight connection to Seoul, South Korea. It was him along with thirty others. Halfway through the flight the captain informed us they were holding that flight.
I immediately grabbed the lead stewardess again and asked that they hold my flight as well, explaining my situation.
She ignored me.
I tried again to no avail. Knowing that making a scene would just land me in jail there was little to be done. We were in final approach by this point.
Long story short, I missed the connection. No one from the flight crew called the gate in Detroit. I missed the flight by eight minutes. The departure board had the wrong gate as well. The gate crew would have held the flight for me.
No other flight out of Detroit would get me to the funeral on time and I had zero desire to be social with my siblings and their families. So, I had the airline book me a flight home with a $200 travel voucher and a promise of a refund of the unused portion of my ticket for my troubles.
That refund never happened.
So, for my $900 I got a tour of the Detroit and Atlanta airports and the opportunity to buy a Ribeye and a double bourbon at a Longhorn Steakhouse. Given the toxic nature of my familial relationships, the Universe did me a solid here.
But, that’s not the point.
What good is a travel industry that is incapable of responding to customer needs such that it can ensure we make once-in-a-lifetime events without feeling like we’re the problem?
Isn’t that what we’re paying for with all of this safety and smiling?
The airline spent the entire time thanking me for choosing them. I only have two choices flying out of my regional airport, so like the false choice between Democrats and Republicans, it’s pretty much a coin flip.
Now, you know that when someone constantly tells you how much they value you that means they actually don’t. If they valued our patronage they would treat us like they wanted us. But, they actually could care less.
Because they don’t have to. We are a captured market. And there is no avenue to innovate.
And nothing about this is going to change for the better until the entire industry crashes and burns again, like it did in 2008 and previously. But, control over travel is one of the most important levers our government has over us and you can rest assured knowing that their control over that they will not let go of.
The airlines respond to the increased regulation with demanded concessions, more lobbying and lesser service while operating on thinner margins. If you step out of line or miss your flight you cannot get a refund on your ticket, even though, as Martin Armstrong recently pointed out, over half of the ticket cost is taxes. The airline pockets the taxes and you pocket the bill.
Imagine if the car rental companies worked this way. Or any other for that matter. The closest analogue is event tickets, like concert tickets. But, at least there, you can sell the ticket if you can’t go to the event. Not an airline ticket, it’s tied to you and you alone.
And before you start shouting “Terrorism!” the security theatre that surrounds air travel is no excuse for poor service. The reality is that the airlines are public companies in name only, the true definition of Fascism. They effectively work for the government.
And, honestly, that’s a flight I hope I get off of before it enters “Coffin Corner.”