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Should You Watch ‘Flying Cheap’?

Frontline’s latest installment, Flying Cheap, is, in my mind, required viewing for all travelers (I’d assign it as homework if I could). The show uses last year’s crash of Continental Flight 3407 as a jumping-off point for a thorough investigation of the airline industry’s evolution into a hub-and-spoke system heavily dependent on regional carriers. And it’s these regional carriers—Colgan Air, in particular, as it was Colgan that operated Flight 3407—that receive much of the show’s attention.

Frontline approaches the investigation with a notably negative tone. Host Miles O’Brien is a pilot himself (an early segment shows him flying himself to an interview) and, understandably, seems to take the task personally. The thrust of Flying Cheap is that over the past two decades, major airlines such as Continental have increasingly outsourced huge portions of their route networks to smaller regional carriers, like Colgan, who fly under the larger airlines’ names in planes with the larger airlines’ logos painted on the tail.

But these regional carriers are wholly independent companies, with their own pilots, maintenance programs, and management. A common refrain throughout Flying Cheap is that the passengers on Continental Flight 3407 thought they were getting “Continental pilots and Continental safety,” when in fact Continental was handing them off to an entirely different carrier. And this is where Flying Cheap strikes perhaps its strongest note: The contracts between regionals and most major lines transfer all liability to the regional airline. The major airline that sells you your ticket is not responsible for what happens to you when it hands you off to a regional carrier.

And for regional carriers, profitability is largely a function of keeping costs low. This means paying pathetically small salaries to rookie pilots and, as Frontline suggests was the case with Colgan, minimizing expenses related to maintenance. All of which happens with little to no oversight or interest from the regional’s employer, which, again, is the airline selling you your ticket. You can see where Flying Cheap is going with this.

I’ll stop summarizing there because I want you to watch the episode. But while watching, I think it’s important to consider what’s largely missing from the equation: Us, the customers, and the role we’ve played in the industry’s development. Flying Cheap casts travelers as victims of an overwhelmed and inadequately concerned industry, but we’re also participants in the business. We vote with our wallets, and reliably cast our lot with whichever airline has the lowest fare. The Washington Post points out that travelers have come to “expect the best of service but the lowest of fares” and says we are a nation “addicted to cheap flying” and that we get what we pay for. There’s truth to this, especially the obvious contradiction within the first statement, and perhaps Frontline could have talked to more airline representatives for their perspective (both Continental and Colgan declined interviews). 

But I think the central point of Flying Cheap would remain unchanged: Airlines should not sell us an expectation they can’t, or won’t, deliver.

Readers, I’d love to hear what you thought of Flying Cheap. Leave a comment below with your reaction. Thanks!

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