Outlook for air travel: More misery ahead

Among my role models as a writer is James Surowiecki. He's the author of "The Wisdom of Crowds" and writes the weekly Financial Page column in the New Yorker.

In his New Yorker pieces, Surowiecki manages to tackle fairly abstruse issues in business and economics, clarify the terms of the debate, and suggest a reasoned perspective, if not a solution. And he does it, week in and week out, in the space of a single page, with grace and wit.

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In his column in the September 3 issue of the magazine, entitled "The Unfriendly Skies," he considers the condition of the airline industry. And not surprisingly, he finds it dreadful, citing "the sheer misery of flying."

Delays, lost bags, shoddy service ... Surowiecki cites the usual indignities to which the airlines subject their customers. But that's not the most depressing part of the story. No, the real downer is his prognosis for improvement, of which he sees little or none in the foreseeable future.

He bases his pessimism on a breakdown of the normal competitive pressures of the free market, suggesting that "[F]or many trips, there's no meaningful alternative to flying, which limits the power that fliers have as customers."

His conclusion: "[W]e're stuck with the current system, because it isn't really in any airline's interest to try to change it. As long as no airline makes a dedicated effort to distinguish itself from the pack, all the airlines can stay lean, even at the expense of quality."

I'd take issue with Surowiecki on one point. On the subject of airline advertising, he says this: "[T]he most honest thing about the airlines may be their advertising, which tends to emphasize the flying experience—lulling us with talk of leg room and fully reclining seats."

'Airlines,' 'advertising,' and 'honesty' should never be used in the same sentence.

The airlines' promotion of their cushy first-class product is clearly a case of trickle-down advertising, meant to suggest that comparable comfort and tranquility may be enjoyed in other classes of service as well. And no one who has endured a coach-class seat on a cross-country flight would consider that a truthful claim.

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