United's passenger-beatings are a feature of its business, not a bug

In a world where the airlines record-smashing profits comes from a small number of increasingly luxurious first-class seats, the entire focus of the industry is on figuring out how to convince just a few marginal customers to spend more for one of those profit-centers instead of deadheading in coach.

There are two ways to do this: one is to make first class more luxurious, and this is definitely underway with new beds, linens, check-in procedures, baggage handling, TSA special treatment, and more.

But the other part of the strategy is to make coach worse. A lot worse.

So bad that people who aren't paying for their own tickets -- like spouses, employees or consultants -- simply refuse to go somewhere unless someone (else) springs for the ticket. The amount of benefit (from taking the trip) that these marginal passengers are willing to forgo needs to be matched and exceeded by the amount of pain from flying in coach.

The airlines can't control how badly you want to get somewhere, but they have total control over how awful getting there can be. The airline might not actively plan to have its passengers beaten unconscious in coach, but they're not interested in preventing it, and the "usual" procedure is so hostile and authoritarian that it normalizes such beatings to the extent that a bunch of temporarily embarrassed millionaires write it off as unremarkable.

In a competitive market, this wouldn't be a problem: airlines that punished customers for choosing coach would lose their business to nicer airlines. But aviation is not competitive, it's an oligopoly where anti-trust exemptions have allowed the industry to concentrate into just a few carriers who often don't compete on routes, meaning that getting from A to B often leaves you with just one choice. To paraphrase Lily Tomlin: "we're the aviation monopoly, we don't have to care."

This, in turn, is an epiphenomena of the Thomas Piketty apocalypse: an ever-tinier slice of the population controls an ever-growing proportion of the world's wealth, so entire industries become obsessed with selling super-premium products to a highly select group of customers: we have a glut of luxury penthouses (safe deposit boxes in the sky that are primarily treated as investments) and a shortage of affordable housing (used as shelter). We have politicians who spend 50% of their working hours calling up 1%ers and begging for money, and then deliver policies that screw everyone except the donor class.

Don’t mistake me. There are a lot of other things you can take away from this sorry event. There is the increased militarization of American life, with authorities reacting to common disputes in increasingly aggressive ways. There is a positive lesson, too, in that ordinary Americans have access to more potential publicity — and, hopefully, recourse — than ever before, courtesy of social media. Finally, there is a narrative of privilege at play. More than a few pointed out this contretemps would likely not have received as much attention if the unwilling passenger were poor or African-American. Others noted that the doctor, who is Asian-American, might have been treated differently by officers or airline staff if he were white.

But this isn’t an either-or situation. Yes, we can tell people who perceive themselves as privileged to get used to the second-class treatment those poorer than them have been receiving for a long time. But it seems like a better bet, both ethically and for the sake of our futures, to improve conditions for all.

United Airlines Is Not Alone [Helen Olen/New York Times]

(via Naked Capitalism)

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