The unprecedented instability of the airline industry over the past five years has been a mixed bag for consumers.
Sure, ticket prices have been low. But the trade-off has been cutbacks in service, extra fees where none previously existed, and bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies that have kept large numbers of the traveling public on the edge of their seats.
The conventional analysis of this period of industry tumult has focused on some combination of management incompetence and intransigence on the part of the airlines’ once-powerful labor unions.
But haven’t we, as consumers, played a major role in bringing commercial aviation to its current sorry state? After all, it was our unrelenting price-sensitivity that forced the full-service airlines to reinvent themselves as low-cost carriers.
One can’t help but be reminded of the soul-searching that Wal-Mart engenders in many communities. No one I know endorses Wal-Mart’s employment policies, which are predicated on paying wages which can hardly be called livable and providing healthcare and pension benefits which are cynically inadequate.
But we don’t back up our moral indignation with the only response that would force the world’s largest retailer to modify its behavior: by boycotting Wal-Mart’s products. Bargains trump ethics.
Whether it’s goods or airline tickets, when given the choice of quality or cheap prices, we choose the latter. And then we complain when we get exactly what we paid for — stripped-down products and labor policies we would neither accept ourselves nor wish upon our friends or family.
We have met the enemy, and he is (partly) us.