A New Airline Model

At risk of repeating this one more wearying time, readers should remember that the airlines are not your friends. For years, back through the period I was a travel writer, this served as my mantra through hundreds of thousands of miles on board a variety of airlines. It was true then, it’s true now.

The latest reminder of this is United Airlines, which decided to have a passenger forcibly removed from a flight after too few people refused United’s demand that they get off because the airline had overbooked and needed seats. That’s right – one passenger didn’t want to surrender the seat he had paid for, so he was mauled by police and dragged shamefully from the plane. Social media and even national lawmakers are coming together with sharp criticism for United and even proposing some new laws.

This probably isn’t going to amount to anything, particularly the calls for a boycott of United. In too many airports like Houston, Newark and Denver, United is the dominant carrier and in some instances the only one. Passengers boycotting United may be doing little more than cutting off their note to spite their face.

Overbooking is the culprit here, and United is hardly alone in this nasty business practice which passengers understandably loathe. It is a popular tactic with greedy airlines who claim they need it to maintain profits. In a word, that’s baloney.

The airlines deliberately sell more tickets than they have seats for on nearly every flight. They do this, they claim, to avoid cancellations and flying empty planes. It’s an evil, non-customer friendly practice which has been enshrined in law, even as it affects only a very small percentage of passengers. But it’s still bad and needs to be changed. And here’s what airlines don’t tell you:

They would make almost exactly as much money if there were no such thing as overbooking. That’s because most of the seats sold on any flight are nonrefundable. You don’t fly, you lose your money; the airline keeps it. And most passengers who purchase refundable tickets use them; and many of those who don’t simply reuse the ticket at a later date. The airline still gets its money.

United turned a profit of almost $2.3 billion last year, joining the other major carriers in record or near-record earnings. Doing away with overbooking isn’t going to put much of a dent in that windfall. But the airlines aren’t interested in that. They’d apparently rather maintain their current levels of miserable customer service and lack of attentiveness to all but a tiny percentage of passengers who buy hugely over-priced first-class tickets.

In a word, the airlines aren’t your friends. And while talk of a boycott of United or any other airline is nice and feels good, what will actually do some good is to ask your lawmakers to pass a law rescinding the one that permits airlines to continue the outrageous practice of of overbooking. That would be a positive step, one that would benefit anyone subjected to the dreadful experience that is flying these days.

And finally, allow me to quote from a fine article in this morning’s New York Times discussing the United incident and what’s so terribly wrong with the airlines today:

“Everything about United flight 3411 — overselling, underpaying for seats when they are oversold, a cultish refusal to offer immediate contrition, an overall attitude that brutish capitalism is the best that nonelite customers can expect from this fallen world — is baked into the airline industry’s business model.”

Amen. Get on the phone to your representatives and senators now. Let’s get rid of one of these vices as quickly as possible.