It is difficult to deny the ubiquity of air travel, especially given the numbers; according to the United States Bureau of Transportation, 895.5 million domestic and international passengers cycled through American airports in 2015, a significant increase from approximately 775 million passengers during the height of the 2008 global recession. With passenger figures that high, it is unsurprising airlines are in their best financial shape in well over twenty years. According to earnings reports from the 2016 fiscal year, the four major carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines — reaped record profits, earning about $22 billion dollars following a decade characterized by layoffs, rising costs and security fears. Airline fuel prices dropped to record lows as well; in Jan. of 2016, fuel prices were at twelve-year lows, with gasoline trading at less than $1.50 per gallon for nearly a week between Jan. 20 and Jan. 27. Despite this, passengers fail to feel any benefits.
Airfare remains high, while amenities continue to be stripped away from passengers — the ability to choose one’s own seat, the availability of food, the need to pay for checked baggage, the amount of legroom provided: minutiae, perhaps, but all indications of the reduced quality of air travel. The recent controversy regarding the removal of passenger David Dao from a United Airlines flight to accommodate non-revenue passengers serves only to corroborate the idea that airlines treat customers poorly for the sake of profit. It is unfathomable why passengers should be made to withstand substandard service solely for a company’s financial gain.
It was a necessary evil for airlines to begin charging additional fees for basic services during the economic downturn of 2008; reduced demand for travel, in addition to increased fuel costs, meant the possibility for financial collapse was quite real. Indeed, US Airways’ merger with American Airlines in 2015 was a product of the former company’s slow decline following financial troubles stemming from the recession. However, with most major carriers now accruing above average levels of profit, it is reasonable to expect such prosperity would be passed on to consumers. It is simply unacceptable that passengers are now subject to removal based on the whims of an entity beyond their influence; we already pay enough and are treated poorly enough as consumers, does our money no longer grant us the ability to even be on the aircraft?
Regulation is undoubtedly in order, and has most certainly been proposed — thus, we must ask: where is our reform? Over the past year, several senators, notably Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have pushed for amendments to Federal Aviation Administration funding tracts to protect consumers from poor treatment by airlines, including additional protections against canceled reservations, moratoriums on reduced seat sizes and decreased legroom and required disclosure of additional fees to consumers before they book a ticket. However, lobbyism has a firm grip on Congress; in this past election cycle, donations from United Continental Holdings and lobbyist group Airlines for America donated significantly larger amounts of funds to legislators supportive of corporations, largely Republican senators.
Ultimately, air travel is necessary for almost all Americans, regardless of the headaches. It is not reasonable to expect consumers to vote with their wallets on this issue, as the efficiency of flight outweighs the principle of not paying high ticket costs. Advocacy is perhaps one’s only option; contacting one’s senator provides a means to ensure regulation is seriously considered and to ensure that the rights of airline passengers and consumers are protected in perpetuity. Via mail, via phone, via social media — regardless of the medium of contact, appealing to our legislators is paramount to ensuring the friendly skies remain friendly. You may contact Sen. Bill Nelson at https://www.billnelson.senate.gov/contact-bill, and Sen. Marco Rubio at https://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact.