Kahn believed that if new competitors could enter markets and charge whatever prices they liked, fares would drop even faster and more people would fly. But airlines do in fact have fixed costs in the form of expensive capital equipment. And one seat is pretty much like another — as economists say, there is little product differentiation — so in a competitive free-for-all, everyone goes broke.
In the first years of deregulation, there was too much competition and the airlines collectively lost a fortune. Their strategy was to consolidate. All 21 of the proposed mergers presented to Reagan administration antitrust officials in the 1980s were approved, and some 20 more have been approved in the years since.
The airlines devised frequent flier programs and “fortress hubs” to maximize their pricing power. Carriers knew to stay out of each other’s hubs. By 1988, 85 percent of airline markets had only two airlines competing, and they closely monitored each other’s fares, so that true price competition was rare.
An industry that is not naturally competitive went from being a regulated cartel, to a brief period of ruinous competition, and then to an unregulated cartel — with predictable effects on the quality of service. This restored profitability, but at awful costs both to customer convenience and to economic efficiency as well.
With the hub-and-spoke system used to defend airlines’ pricing power, there are fewer nonstops. Passengers waste time and often miss connections, while airlines waste fuel.
Flying more miles than necessary to reach a destination is known in the industry as circuity. All of these profit-gouging strategies add up to a false brand of “efficiency” that actually increases the system’s costs at passenger expense.
Today’s auction system on oversold flights, ironically, is the stepchild of a 1976 Supreme Court case, Nader vs. Allegheny, in which the late and little lamented Allegheny Airlines (known to its long suffering passengers as Agony Airlines) picked the wrong passenger to bump. Ralph Nader sued and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The high Court, in a 9-0 ruling, held that if a passenger had a confirmed ticket, the airline was committing a fraudulent act by bumping him. (Allegheny, fittingly, became USAir, which was merged into American.) After a search for remedies, the industry eventually came up with — what else — a wondrous market solution: the auction.
But in an industry that is not naturally competitive, tweaking market incentives will not fix what’s broken. For starters, planes should not be permitted to fly so full. That leaves no room for contingencies. . .