I am on the road today, or rather in the air, trying to fly cross-country. My flights on United Airlines were thrown into turmoil because of bad weather, and I was rebooked on a crazy three-legged trip that took me east before going west, where I am actually heading. I called a travel agent to see if I could get something better and apparently every flight on every airline to my destination was booked solid. So here I am, waiting at the airport to finish the third leg.
I don’t blame airlines for weather delays — though United and I are on quite a losing streak lately. However, I do blame them for designing a crazy just-in-time Walmart system where there is absolutely no slack whatsoever in the air transportation network. One bad snowstorm and the entire country locks up and people get stranded for days if there are any cancellations. I was lucky.
The situation highlights a major flaw in the world of deregulated flights. We have a bunch of for-profit companies in competition for customers, and to save money they collude to reduce seating capacity. Routes which used to fly Boeing 737s now have tiny Embraer 145s, and if your flight is delayed and you misconnect, you’re screwed. I often wonder how much the fuel costs saved by the airlines is offset by lost productivity as huge numbers of people spend time and money sorting out their busted itineraries.
Wouldn’t it be better to just subsidize fuel costs to keep spare capacity in the national air transportation network? I know, we can’t, because every time someone says “government subsidy” a neoliberal economist gets testicular cancer.
But seriously, it’s not like we haven’t explicitly shoveled taxpayer money at this industry before. And we do it continuously by paying for airports, security, and flight coordination.