by Jon Caldara
I know what you were thinking when you watched that guy being violently dragged down the aisle and off that United Airlines flight: Unlike you on your last flight, at least he was able to stretch out his legs.
There was something cathartic about watching this guy being brutally forced out of his seat and man-handled, humiliated as his glasses were falling off his face, his shirt forced up over his belly and then bloodied. That video connected with us because it was visual confirmation of how we feel we’re treated when we fly.
That video went viral because when it comes to air travel we are all that guy.
I enjoy watching the Tom Hanks movie, “Catch Me if You Can,” despite Leonardo DeCaprio being in it. It’s fun seeing the nostalgic imagery of Pam Am airlines in its 1960s heyday. Pilots walking with pride, stewardesses, before they were called flight attendants, dressed to the nines and smiling. No really: Flight attendants, they used to smile, I swear. Passengers still had a sense of awe about the miracle of flight. And airlines focused on providing a great customer experience.
In other words, it reminds me there was a time when airlines tried to beat their competition, not their customers.
I’m also reminded about the pride we used to have over our hometown airline, Frontier. That great budget airline seemed to capture the spirit of our state — feisty, causal, fun, friendly and unafraid to take on the big dog, in this case, United.
Now Frontier has turned into the flying equivalent of an inner-city transit bus, complete with cramped, plastic seats that don’t recline and a feeling of complete capitulation. Both passengers and crew reek of, “I don’t want to be here anymore than you do.” And with “a la cart” pricing, I’m certain if the oxygen masks are ever deployed, there would be a five-dollar charge to use them — simply slide any major credit card.
Trump wasn’t all that off when he said American airports are like third world countries. Modern air travel treats us like third world citizens.
So, why do we put up with it? I think partly because when we get off the plane, after the obligatory ten-minute wait for the ground crew to show up at the gate, we’re so happy to get out of that sardine can, we just want to move on and forget it ever happened, and hope the repressed memories of it don’t surface.
Yet there is another side. We put up with it because we know the bargain we’re getting. Jimmy Carter doesn’t get enough credit for deregulating the airlines. Because he did, air travel has been largely democratized. The mobility of the nation has soared, pardon the pun.
Business travel used to be the airlines’ bread and butter, because demand business travel is inelastic. The salesman has to go sell. But personal travel is price sensitive. A $40 flight to Kansas City to see your mom, or a $50 flight to Vegas to see, well, everything, is worth the cattle-like treatment to most of us.
According to The Atlantic, in 1965 less than 20 percent of Americans had ever flown on an airplane. By 2000, half the country took at least one round-trip a year, with the average being two. Why? Competition.
The average airfare in 2011 was 40 percent less than in 1980, adjusted for inflation. In 1974, it was illegal for an airline to charge less than $1,442 in inflation-adjusted dollars for a flight between New York City and Los Angeles. A quick look on Kayak.com and I’m seeing $300 trips now, for a round-trip!
There will be calls for government to “do something” in the wake of the videotaped proof of United’s, shall we say, at least honest feelings towards us. Heaven forbid some congressman not call for government to do something.
But the marketplace has its own way of feedback. United’s stock plunged so far the company lost a billion dollars of value. Its days of treating customers like anti-war protesters blocking traffic are over. No “outraged” speeches at the well of House of Representatives needed. Congress can go back to not fixing Obamacare.
All the same, treating customers with respect isn’t a big cost driver. It’s time we give our business to airlines who do.
This article originally appeared in the Denver Post, April 15, 2017.