Airlines and laissez-faire

This article in the NY Times describes a two-class system of air travel, where business- and first-class travelers benefit from increasingly lavish treatment, and coach-class travelers suffer in less and less comfort. The explanation for this state of affairs, as laid out in the article, is quite clear. Airlines must compete for the fewer, but deeper-pocketed better-class traveler, but, since the coach-class traveler buys tickets based solely on cost, and since coach sections are almost always full or even over-booked, all they need to do there is to make the ride as cheap as possible. It seems to me that this state of affairs is the expected, necessary result of applying laissez-faire principles to air travel. Since there really are no relevant government standards, airlines are free to do whatever it takes to maximize profits.

The problem is that airlines depend on the government at various levels for many things. It simply isn't possible for laissez-faire to extend to things like air traffic control, noise abatement, safety and interoperability standards, security, and so on. This is why various other countries have opted for full or partial state-ownership of the national airline. I'm not advocating a federally-owned passenger airline, but it illustrates the point that the government is already, necessarily, involved in oversight and control of airlines.

Why doesn't some particular airline take the step of upgrading coach amenities unilaterally? The answer to this is clear: it would be economic suicide. The NY Times piece gives examples of this. Each time, the change reduced profits and was withdrawn. Clearly, under the present circumstances, the situation will only continue to worsen.

Therefore, the question for America as a society is whether we will continue accept the consequences of relinquishing oversight of passenger comfort. Only a centralized, government mandate can improve the situation. This would also be fair, since such a mandate would apply equally to all airlines, not giving a competitive advantage to any one.

Why don't we adopt standards for such things as:

  • Spacing between seats (possibly as a function of the length of a flight).
  • In-flight meal service.
  • Maintenance of passenger comfort items such as seats, music systems, lights, video systems, and so on.
  • Width of the seats.
When we read about oil-rich sheiks converting airliners into flying pleasure palaces, it becomes clear that air travel doesn't have to be hideously uncomfortable. Coach-class passengers shouldn't expect luxury, but there is a certain basic comfort level that we should be able to count on.

What about cost? Well, yes, the cost will go up. However, airlines will still compete on cost in coach class. Since all of them would be subject to the same passenger comfort standards, this competition will reduce ticket prices without sacrificing passenger comfort. We will end up paying a little more, but, given a level playing field, not as much more as one might expect. Airplane travel could actually become pleasant, not something to be dreaded. The question is, will we continue only to look at the cost side of the cost-benefit equation, or will we accept that a greater benefit might be worth a greater cost?

No comments: