AP: How the US fell out of love with flying

February 2, 2023 Media

The apology Southwest Airlines emailed to customers following mass cancellations that stranded travellers across the US over Christmas annoyed Talesha Roberson. The way she saw it, the problems with flying extended far beyond one airline’s high-profile holiday meltdown.

Roberson, a Washington state resident who grew up in Indiana, flies back there about five times a year to visit family and friends. In September, maintenance problems delayed her Southwest flight for more than two hours. Then on December 17 — four days before a storm kicked off the chaos at Southwest — the airline cancelled her flight, again because of maintenance. Though Southwest refunded her fare and put her on another flight the next day, when she arrived in Washington her luggage was missing.

The mounting inconveniences have made her question the integrity of air travel, not just at Southwest, but across the industry. “People are losing trust,” she says. “A lot more people are going to start going on road trips.”

Consumer data backs up Roberson’s feeling: the US flying public is not happy. A Gallup poll in August found that 37 per cent of Americans held a negative view of the airline industry, compared with 27 per cent who held a favourable impression — the first time in more than a decade that critics have outnumbered fans.

The concerns raised by opponents of deregulation came to pass: the airline industry has increasingly consolidated. Between 2008 and 2013 there were a series of megamergers in which United, Delta and American Airlines each swallowed a similarly sized competitor. The four major US carriers and their affiliate regional airlines now control 80 per cent of the routes in the United States, says William McGee, senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly think-tank. Unlike the glut of new competitors that flooded the market in the 1980s, only two new airlines have launched in the past 16 years.

Consolidation is “the original sin here”, says McGee, of the American Economic Liberties Project. The four largest US carriers are not only too big to fail, he adds, “they’ve reached a threshold where they’re too big to care”.

McGee points the blame at the US Department of Transportation for failing to regulate the aviation industry under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The Airline Deregulation Act includes the so-called federal pre-emption provision making the DoT the industry’s sole regulator, meaning neither passengers nor government officials can sue airlines for violating consumer protection laws. This makes US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, McGee notes, “the only sheriff” in town.

Later this year, Congress will vote on another FAA reauthorisation bill, which has become an omnibus bill to legislate on matters affecting aviation. McGee says he hopes to include language overturning pre-emption.

McGee wonders whether airlines may be underestimating the strength of feeling against them. He notes that in all the years his consumer advocacy group has worked with Republican representatives and senators, it had until recently never received an unsolicited phone call from that side of the political spectrum.

“I received two within three days last week,” he says. “Guess what? They fly too. These things transcend politics . . . The only thing that is going to save this fractured country of ours is the airlines, because we all hate the airlines and the way they treat us.”