The biggest reason the air travel experience is so bad in the U.S. is because airlines are government-protected and the space within which they can innovate – and the need for them to do so – is highly limited.
- It’s not just that foreign airlines can’t own U.S. carriers.
- Government hands out slots, effectively in perpetuity, at the nation’s busiest airports – incumbent airlines have them, new competitors don’t. What’s more, unlike in much of the world, nearly all airports in the U.S. are owned by governments.
- They enter into long-term leases for gate space, and give right of first refusal to extend those leases, to existing airlines – blocking new entrants from accessing the most important markets.
There’s little opportunity to disrupt the U.S. airline market, but that’s not enough for the big U.S. airlines who use government all the time for their own advantage, whether it’s:
- Delta quashing attempts to build a second Atlanta airport
- United lobbying to keep to ‘perimeter rule’ in effect at Washington National, so there can be no competition at the preferred airport for United’s long distance flights
- American and Southwest colluding to prevent new competition at Dallas Love Field literally destroying gates from which other carriers might provide service.
Yet they have the tenacity to claim that some foreign airlines are too supported by their governments that they ought not be allowed to fly here (further limiting competition and transferring wealth from U.S. consumers to airline shareholders).
The airline industry worldwide has long been deeply intertwined with governments, and the same sort of cronyism we face in the U.S. plays out in other countries as well. For instance the CEO of Lufthansa proclaims that only the wealthy should fly, government ought to crack down on low fares because low fare are bad for the environment. In other words, he’d like to see the German government and the EU crack down on competitors like Ryanair, easyJet, and Wizz Air to protect Lufthansa Group from having to compete on price.
Well the CEO of European low cost carrier Wizz Air said ‘hold my beer’, low cost airline CEOs can play the same game of ‘bootleggers and baptists’ aligning their self-interest with a noble purpose to get government to advance their own business interests at the expense of consumers.
He argues that the government should ban business class, a product his airline doesn’t offer. And it’s not because it limits competition from better products, it’s for the good of the world, natch.
Business class should be banned. These passengers account for twice the carbon footprint of an economy passenger, and the industry is guilty of preserving an inefficient and archaic model.
A rethink is long overdue, and we call on fellow airlines to commit to a total ban on business class travel for any flight under five hours.
Here’s how Skift‘s Brian Sumers describes the green claims of another Bill Franke-controlled airline, Frontier:
Calling Frontier “America’s Greenest Airline,” [CEO Barry] Biffle explained it would buy the newest airplanes, cram them with seats, and fly them longer each day than competitors. Inside, Frontier would offer zero amenities — no Wi-Fi, in-seat power, or entertainment — while charging extra for everything, including baggage, food and sodas.
“Look, it is not the most comfortable for a couple of hours,” Biffle told hundreds of industry insiders, “but it is the most comfortable that you will find for the planet.”
The world is facing a climate change crisis, and Biffle essentially mocked it, repackaging the airline’s existing model, and congratulating himself for environment stewardship. Yes, packing on spartan (and light) seats reduces per-passenger emissions, but Biffle, a former Spirit Airlines executive, loved that strategy well before most travelers worried about sustainability. It saves money.
Every business can do this, cloak their self-interested lobbying in the mantle of benefit for a broader public good. Indeed, most businesses who seek to profit by political rather than economic means do this today. It’s just exceptionally common in the airline industry, where government corruption has run rife on consumer interests for a hundred years.