The sheer awfulness of U.S. air travel never ceases to amaze me. The lines are long, the seats small, the food foul. Passengers are herded around like cattle. Flights are often late, connections missed, travelers bumped. And yet – this is the extraordinary thing – those travelers put up with it, grateful for anything they get.
It’s an inversion of the usual American consumer experience. In pretty much any other walk of life, Americans are the most demanding customers on the planet, wanting everything instantly. This, after all, is the land not just of the drive-thru Dunkin' Donuts, but of the drive-thru wedding.
Put the same Americans in an airport, though, and they become cowed and passive, ready to put up with excruciatingly bad service for want of any alternative. The cabin crew, secure in their union rights, lack the nothing-is-too-much-trouble attentiveness that you find everywhere else. It’s the ultimate proof that national character is primarily a product of institutions. Give people Soviet-style lines, and they’ll trudge along obediently. Something similar happens in British healthcare.
How are we to explain this un-American glitch? For an answer, consider the latest arrogance from United Airlines. Just before Christmas, a 63-year-old teacher was bumped from a United flight from Houston to Washington, D.C. Not unreasonably, she was upset. It was a special trip for her, and she had purchased a first-class seat with 140,000 travel miles. But United booted her off to make space for a Democratic politician, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.
The congresswoman has form when it comes to air travel, demanding upgrades, berating staff who are in no position to answer back and, in her own words, insisting on being “treated like a queen."
Real queens, of course, don’t queen about like Democratic congresswomen. Nor do they play the victim. Despite having been awarded someone else’s seat, she crossly accused the bumped passenger of racism. Maybe, in the circumstances, that passenger should count herself lucky to have got away without having her nose broken or a couple of teeth knocked out – the fate of David Dao, the doctor dragged from a seat for which he, too, had paid, on a United flight in April.
The episode contains a clue as to why domestic air travel is so ghastly. Rather than honoring its contract with a loyal customer, United felt obliged to kiss up to a congresswoman – a congresswoman who happens to sit on the Committee on Homeland Security and to serve as the ranking member of the subcommittee on transportation security. Airlines are among the most regulated of all industries, and they know how to use that regulation to load the dice in their favor.
Did you know, for example, that there is a federal cap on the amount that an airline can pay as compensation to travelers bumped from a flight? That’s right – a maximum, not a minimum, sum.
On several routes, Americans have no choice of carrier. Domestic air travel is, if not an outright monopoly, certainly a restricted oligopoly. The same was, until recently, true of many overseas routes. Spotting the opportunity, Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar moved in, offering comfortable seats and glamorous flight attendants who knew that they could replaced at the drop of a hat by someone who needed the job more.
Rather than raise their game, U.S. airlines lobbied the federal authorities for protection. Soon afterwards, the Department of Homeland Security announced a ban on electronics larger than cellphones – a ban that applied narrowly to ten airports and nine airlines, which just happened to include the Gulf carriers that were outperforming their American rivals.
Here’s something I don’t often get the chance to say. When it comes to aviation, Europe has a freer market than America. Yup, the top-down, corporatist E.U. avoids the cronyism that United, American, and Delta take for granted. A European airline based in Country A is not restricted to flying in and out of that country. It can operate routes between Country B and Country C, or internal routes within Country C. Competition cuts costs, encourages innovation, and raises expectations.
America may lack a real queen, but the gilded princelings of its regulated industries know how to shaft their customers royally.
Daniel Hannan, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a British member of the European Parliament.