Trouble In The Skies: Did We Make This Bed?

This may come as a shock to….absolutely nobody, but air travel isn’t as glorious as it once was.  Not a day goes by where I don’t read a story about a troublesome experience in the air. Many of you send me those stories. They’re all cringeworthy. A good many are avoidable. But, they tell the tale of how disappointing air travel can be.  

A recent opinion piece has been circulating the blogosphere, talking about a really bad travel experience.  There are flight delays, misinformation and a few bad words.  View From The Wing writes about it as something of a cautionary tale. He’s not wrong in his assertions.  Gary refers to the need for travelers to be educated about the various policies that may cause them to lose the value of their ticket. But, there’s a separate issue that Gary doesn’t refer to specifically (though he may agree with). 

Not once, but twice in the opinion piece, our protagonist says he chose American even after being severely disappointed with them. His reason for choosing would make Scott Kirby all warm and fuzzy.

Who’s Scott Kirby? 

One could argue he’s a big part of the reason we’re in this mess,.   I think that probably understates the desire other airline executives had for the same outcome.  Scott Kirby has the unique position of having held some of the highest ranking positions at 2 of the 3 remaining legacy carriers.  He worked with Doug Parker at both America West and US Airways before taking a very senior role at American Airlines post-merger. In what seems like a succession struggle gone awry, Scott Kirby was left to walk…right into the arms of competitor United Airlines, where the board made him President alongside the less experienced (but considerably more personable) Oscar Munoz.  It also left him with probably the most enviable travel package in the history of man. 😉

Along the way, there are plenty of stories about how Kirby looked at most facets of the airline operation through the lens of what it cost to provide something and what the return was on providing it.  He wasn’t the first.  The most humorous decision of “cost analysis” is likely the study by American Airlines that they could save $40,000 a year by removing one olive from every salad.  Scott Kirby’s contribution involves decisions to rip out in-flight entertainment systems because they weighed too much, saving sips of fuel instead of providing a free benefit to customers.  While at US Airways, Scott Kirby was involved in a notorious decision to charge for drinking water on flights.

The only sure fire way to continue removing (or charging for) benefits customers used to receive for free is to be certain your competition won’t serve that customer better.  As the airline industry in the US shrunk to the Big 3 and Southwest, it became easier to offer less.  For starters, Southwest never did offer hot meals, in-flight entertainment or other luxury items.  And, American, Delta and United shrunk enough that they have become very successful at running their hubs profitably.  


In short, I’d argue they don’t have to figure out how to out-do their competition.  In fact, they seem to be in a solid game of figuring out how to “under-do” the competition, what some call a race to the bottom.  The move to revenue-based frequent flier programs is only one example.  Delta lead the way, with United and American following behind.  Even today, we see the airlines following each other when it comes to adding or removing fees customers pay.  Unfortunately, the story of Panama Jackson only reinforces the behavior.

Some have argued, maybe correctly, that Mr. Jackson owns some culpability in his own messy situation.  Set aside for a moment the notion of right and wrong.  It’s clear Mr. Jackson believes American is at fault.  And yet, he chooses American even after he believes they’ve wronged him.  When he believes American has wronged him again, what does he do?  

He books another flight on American Airlines.  Why?

Because they’re the cheapest option at the right time.  

This is what the Big 3 airlines largely believe they compete on today.  Price and schedule.  Not amenities.  As consumers, we don’t change our behavior when something goes wrong, or when they take something away from us.  In a way, we almost can’t, when American, Delta and United follow suit. Some might think I stand atop a box of Ivory, shouting in the square.  While those white, hefty bards of soap would provide me a stable platform to stand on, the truth is I’m just as guilty as everyone else of this behavior.

I start and end my search with United Airlines when I book an airline ticket.  They offer me the best option to get me where I’m going and home to my family quickest.  That’s my behavior even after their repeated attempts to decimate a recent family vacation.  While those actions have caused me to look elsewhere when I have connecting flights, it’s hard to escape price and schedule as powerful draws to travelers.

The Final Two Pennies

Airline executives claim they’re giving us what we asked for, cheaper airline tickets.  I think that overstates the current situation.  Where one airline might have offered a juicy steak in comparison to a competitor who offered a wonderful seafood dish, both have eliminated these from the menu.  Instead, you can choose between a ham sandwich and a tuna sandwich.  Neither are really bad, they just lack much in the way of differentiation.  The only other choice is to forego the sandwich, bringing your own as a measure of protest.  For many, there’s no choice.  They’ll eat the stale bread on the ham sandwich because better choices don’t exist. Maybe over time, you and I will convince ourselves the ham sandwich isn’t as bad as it used to be.  

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Featured image courtesy of Photo courtesy of dbvirago/bigstockphoto


  1. I resist the three crappy airlines by using LCC’s instead for the few times I get forced to fly domestic.

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