By LLEWELLYN KING
New York Times News
WASHINGTON — Those nice people who run two of the largest airlines, U.S. Airways and American Airlines have this nifty idea: They will merge. But the Justice Department — showing uncommon good sense for once — has said “no” to the merger.
So the airlines have done what multibillion-dollar outfits do: They have hired the best lawyers (i.e. the most expensive), the best lobbyists and the top public relations operatives to persuade a judge and the public that the Justice Department is off its rocker and that if the merger happens, the traveling public will be transported on aircraft as comfortable and safe as magic carpets.
A new and glorious era in air travel would be at hand.
Don’t you believe it. The last thing we need is a new monster company with monopoly control of many airports and life-and-death control of the prosperity — even the survival — of small towns. If the merger goes through, go long on bus companies.
Airlines, to give them their due, have their problems, starting with the ups and downs in the price of jet fuel, the vagaries of a market that is spooked by terrorism, a downturn in the economy or the difficulty of getting landing rights at top airports, particularly those serving the North Atlantic route.
But the vagaries of the commercial space occupied by the air carriers has not brought out their humanity. Instead they have become predatory, turning on their passengers with the viciousness of hungry snakes. Flights are overbooked with the certain knowledge that customers will suffer extreme discomfort. Likewise, flights are canceled arbitrarily if the passenger load is not high enough, and fees have spread through the industry like the Black Death in the Middle Ages.
The airlines don’t answer their phones and they juggle prices endlessly, so you can’t predict the cost of travel. And if you should even think of modifying your itinerary, you become an economic target.
On a recent international flight on one of the two carriers trying to buffalo a judge, the Justice Department and Congress that they should get into bed together, I tried to change the last leg — flying from Philadelphia to Washington instead of Philadelphia to Providence, R.I.
My original itinerary said there would be a change fee of $150, and I had a credit card in hand ready for this extortion. But I underestimated the ingenuity in kleptomania of the airline. Sure there would be a change fee, but there would also be — get this — a much higher fee for re-writing the ticket. Oh, even if I tried to get off the plane in Philadelphia, I would have to pay a fee.
But, like the Ginsu knives ads on television, that was not all. To fly the last leg as needed, I would have had to pay more than the original ticket cost.
The airline would not check my bag to Philadelphia; nor would it allow my wife to put it on her ticket, while I took a few toiletries in the cabin. That change would cost $100 because they knew I was going to jump ship and take a bus to Washington.
The airlines are simply out of control. They de facto collude to fix prices on non-ticket items. One airline decides to charge for baggage and — bang — they all do. One decides that any change in itinerary is a revenue stream, and as fast as you can say “cleared to land,” they all have. One decides to charge for food, and in days they are all at it.
The Justice Department is right to oppose this merger, which has at its heart what economists call “market power” or the ability to gauge their defenseless customers.
If Justice loses its suit, Congress should act to block the merger — and it should outlaw non-transport fees and other thievery within the present law.
We should be able to see airliners for what they are: the triumph of the ascent of man, not as winged predators.