This is what laissez faire looks like.
Washington, in its wisdom, deregulated the airline industry and later looked the other way as it underwent a series of mega-mergers leaving a four-carrier oligopoly controlling 85 percent of the market. And what do we have to show for it? Reduced competition; packed cabins; tiny seats; proliferating fees for food, bags and flight changes; outsourcing of maintenance; boarding delays; higher fares in many cases; labyrinthine contracts that protect airlines rather than consumers; and routine overbooking.
While airlines invest millions in perks for those who fly in premium classes, recent weeks have found United Airlines “re-accommodating” a paying passenger, a doctor, by hauling him off a plane, bleeding, to make room for United employees, and American Airlines suspending a flight attendant who allegedly hit a mother with a baby stroller.
Congress summoned airline executives to testify Tuesday before the House Transportation Committee, and while they offered the requisite apologies for the highly publicized abuses of the doctor and the mom, they offered Orwellian rejoinders when confronted with the ordinary abuses they routinely inflict on millions of travelers.
The overbooking that causes thousands to be bumped from flights they paid for?
“We view overbooking as something that actually helps us accommodate and take care of thousands more customers than we would otherwise be able to,” said United Airlines President Scott Kirby.
The imposition of steep ticket-change fees?
“They’re mostly about our way of offering low fares to consumers,” Kirby maintained.
And will those checked-bag fees, imposed because of high fuel costs, go away now that fuel prices are low?
Kerry Philipovitch, American Airlines’ senior vice president of customer experience, said that “we put our fees in place to give customers more options and more choices.”
Bob Jordan of low-cost Southwest Airlines explained why his airline, unlike the big boys, doesn’t charge such fees: “If you’re going to travel, it makes sense that you can bring your clothes along with you.”
The executives even used their appearance to request that Congress deregulate the industry further, asking for the government to privatize the Federal Aviation Administration – there is legislation pending to put the air-traffic control system under the airlines’ control – and to relax regulations on how airlines advertise fares. “Y'all place a lot of stuff on us,” complained United chief executive Oscar Munoz.
Such chutzpah at one time would have led legislators to re-accommodate the executives, United-style. But this GOP-controlled Congress, and the Trump administration, are all about relaxing business rules.
“I don’t believe in overburdening our businesses,” Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) told the executives, saying only that Congress would act “the next time” if they don’t police themselves this time.
Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.) assured the executives that “I don’t like regulation if I can get away with it,” while John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) embraced the industry view that “more people are able to fly at lower prices because of overbooking.”
With the prospect of legislative action off the table, committee members took turns complaining about their own aviation experiences.
Duncan complained about a maintenance delay this week in Knoxville. “It caused me to miss votes last night, and I hate to miss votes,” he said.
Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) let it be known that he has “elite status on every airline up there except for Alaska.”
Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) said he just spent “30 hours getting from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) complained that an airline recently failed to notify her of a flight cancellation, and “I could have changed flights.” And Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) complained about the “teeny tiny, awful seats” on his flight Monday.
“I apologize that you had an uncomfortable flight,” Philipovitch replied.
Here’s what’s more uncomfortable: The abuses of the unfettered airline industry, and Washington’s refusal to do anything about them, are typical. Nearly a decade after the financial crisis, corporate chieftains are again astride the country like a colossus, while workers and customers languish. President Trump promised to help the forgotten man, but his solutions do the opposite: repealing banking reforms, granting large tax cuts to the wealthy, and cutting government efforts to protect workers and consumers.
And passengers. At Tuesday’s hearing, the chairman, Shuster, offered the perverse suggestion that Congress help airlines and other industries by enacting tort reform so that they wouldn’t face so many “damn lawsuits” from pesky customers.
It was a revealing proposal. Airlines are caught abusing passengers in graphic ways, and the top House lawmaker overseeing the industry responds by proposing a crackdown – on passengers.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.