The strain and nervous worry was obvious on the faces of the hordes of travelers jostling for space at ticket kiosks at Honolulu International Airport in Honolulu on a recent Friday morning.
So many things can go wrong on a flight these days. If security takes too long, you might miss your flight and lose the ticket. If your carry-on bag is too big, you might be forced to pay $25 to store it in the baggage compartment. If you bought your ticket too late or paid too little, you might be separated from your traveling companions and told to sit in some other part of the jet.
For people in Hawaii, these stresses are unavoidable. The state’s remote location in the Pacific means that almost all major travel requires a trip or two on an airplane.
But don’t expect much relief from Washington in the form of consumer protection legislation, at least in the near future.
Two congressional hearings in the nation’s capital last week, both scheduled in response to some of the latest outrages that went viral on video, allowed legislators to vent their ire at airline industry executives. But the Republican majority showed little interest in forcing airlines, which have experienced seven years of record earnings, to change their practices.
John Greene, 66, of Carson City, Nevada, strolling through the open breezeways at the Honolulu airport, stopped to talk to a reporter about how the travel experience has changed over the years.
His face darkened as he talked about the tight seats, lack of legroom and discomfort he suffers when he flies now. “This never used to happen, the culture we have let ourselves get into,” he said, talking about the gradual erosion of customer service on airlines. “We’re a bunch of sheep.”
Almost every day now, videos go viral showing irate passengers clashing or quarreling with airline industry personnel or security officers.
This week, it was a near-riot at the Fort Lauderdale airport after Spirit Airlines canceled flights, leaving passengers stranded, and in Burbank, California, a brawl between passengers on a Southwest Airlines jet. In Hawaii, a father flying Delta Airlines to Los Angeles with his children was booted off a flight and threatened with jail in late April over a ticket dispute.
Outrage was greatest, however, last month, when a man from Kentucky, bleeding and battered, was dragged bodily out his seat on United Airlines by security guards because of overbooking.
After the United Airlines incident, members of Congress angrily called for hearings, pledging action against abusive conditions that are causing passengers to flip out.
At the two hearings, there was plenty of heated rhetoric directed at the airline industry.
“My first question I was going to ask, slightly in jest, is why do you hate the American people?” asked U. S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California. “My second question is how much do you hate the American people?”
U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, a Republican from Ohio, compared flying to falling into the hands of the Gestapo.
“Talk to anybody and they will tell you they feel like self-loading cargo,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.
Much of the ire was directed at what is known now as the Big Three — United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Airlines, the three surviving mega-carriers, all of which are major transportation providers to and from Hawaii. If you add in Southwest Airlines, the four biggest carriers control more than 80 percent of airline travel in the United States.
American-based airlines, meanwhile, make more money than any other airlines in the world.
Airline industry executives sat in a row at both hearings, in the House on Tuesday, May 2, and the Senate, on Thursday, May 4, listening calmly and in apparent sympathy as the legislators vented. They apologized for errors made in the past, and said that they will pay people more if it is necessary to forcibly remove them from their seats because of overbooking.
Executives from Hawaiian Airlines were excused from attending the hearing in the House, and told U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster in a letter that Hawaiian Airlines is “extremely conservative” about rebooking customers because many of its passengers are traveling to what they called “the vacation of their dreams.”
“Hawaiian and its more than 6,200 employees take customer service very seriously, and we will continue to look for opportunities to enhance the customer experience,” wrote Mark Dunkerley, Hawaiian’s president and chief executive officer, in a letter on May 2.
But even as they prepared for the hearing, some of the airlines are taking steps that seem likely to make conditions even more onerous for their customers. American Airlines just placed an order for 100 new jets, but news came out last week that the airline had ordered the seats to be placed with only 30 inches of space between the rows, down from the industry average of 31 inches. This allows more seats on each plane, but with less space for each passenger.
Traditionally, seats had 35 inches of space between rows.
Legislators pressed United Airlines about whether it intended to do the same. Scott Kirby, president of United, said no decision had been made yet.
While Republican senators expressed concerns about customer abuse, they worried that imposing additional regulatory burdens on airlines might cause airline ticket prices to rise, or cause other unforeseen but negative consequences.
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said he “needed to admonish” his colleagues that any regulatory changes could drive up the price of tickets.
Sharon Pinkerton, a lobbyist for Airlines for America, the trade group that represents the aviation industry, said that airline fares have fallen 23 percent since 1996, and that customer satisfaction was rising, according to industry surveys.
The industry is a big player in Washington. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the airline industry dispensed some $86.6 million in lobbying fees on Capitol Hill in 2016, including $7.9 million from American Airlines, which had just won approval of its purchase of U.S. Airways, making it the largest airline in the world.
“Everybody on a plane knows it’s wrong but what can you do?” — John Greene, passenger
There was bipartisan acknowledgment that customer service has eroded, and much agreement about the reasons why.
Until 1978, the federal government closely regulated the airline industry, which meant fares and airline profits were set by the government. Tickets were fully refundable, passengers could change their reservations, meals were free, and passengers considered an air flight to be an enjoyable outing. People got dressed up when they flew.
But fares were high and the government oversight could be stifling. Critics thought a free-market approach would be better. The industry was deregulated, and fare prices fell.
But about 10 years ago, the nine surviving airlines began to merge with one another. Now there are only three major airlines left, plus some niche operations, including Hawaiian, Southwest and Alaska Air.
“Lack of competition and consumer choice allows carriers to disregard the interests and concerns of their passengers in ways that would have been unthinkable when there were eight or ten major airlines,” said William McGee, an aviation specialist for the Consumers Union, testifying at the hearing held by the House committee on transportation and infrastructure.
Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, said that airlines have been able to hike ancillary charges such as baggage charges, flight change surcharges and cancellation fees because there are fewer competing airlines. She said American, Delta and United received $14.7 billion in such fees in 2015, up from $5.3 billion in 2008.
“These independent analyses stand in stark contrast to industry claims that it has never been a better and cheaper time to fly,” she said.
Much of the industry consolidation occurred during the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama. Obama had run for office pledging to use antitrust law to break up monopolies but his appointees did little to stop the large mergers. Airline deals were given the green light despite pleas from consumer activists at the time that the mergers would hurt consumers.
“The Obama administration was very lax, and it was lax at a time when consolidation was getting very serious,” said Christopher Sagers, a law professor at Cleveland State University, in an email to Civil Beat.
President Donald Trump also campaigned in opposition to corporate consolidation, and frequently spoke about the anticompetitive effects of large conglomerates on the stump. But Sager said Trump’s nominee to head the antitrust division at the Justice Department, Makan Delrahim, a corporate lawyer who worked in the Justice Department’s antitrust division during the George W. Bush administration, is likely to continue the hands-off attitude of the Obama Administration.
During congressional hearings, Democratic legislators pressed for laws that they said could help consumers. Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, for example, have sponsored legislation that would limit airlines to charging collateral fees only to the extent they impose additional costs on the airline, when the customer is already paying for a ticket.
But Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri who chairs the aviation subcommittee, made it clear that he considered Markey’s bill a nonstarter.
Before Markey began to speak, Blunt jokingly told the witnesses it would be a good time for them to leave the chambers and use the restroom. “In my experience, this is a good time for everyone to take a break,” Blunt said, to loud laughter from other Republicans and airline industry executives.
Markey said he still intends to reintroduce his bill, and hoped to attach it to the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently under review.
In the meantime, legislators who represent the states that serve as headquarters to the large airlines are lobbying the Trump administration to keep overseas competitors out of the United States. On behalf of Delta Airlines, Georgia Reps. John Lewis, a Democrat, and Rob Woodall, a Republican, asked the U.S. State Department and the Department of Transportation to investigate the attempted expansion into U.S. markets by Qatar Airways, Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways.
That leaves passengers, like Greene, the man at the Honolulu airport last week waiting for the arrival of his son, a Marine, thinking about the direction the airline industry is going. He wasn’t happy about it.
“Everybody on a plane knows it’s wrong but what can you do?,” he said. “It’s like some people get numb to murder. People get used to it. They’re afraid to step up and say, ‘No, not on my watch.'”