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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010 03:28 am

Flying the un-friendly skies

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It can be amusing to read the business section of newspapers, because corporate coverage tends to be carefully couched in phrases that either obfuscate what’s really going on or are outright Orwellian.

For example, a recent New York Times article on rising airline fares and fees did a rhetorical tiptoe around the core issue. The fact is that practically all airlines have jacked up the price of flying – and in unison! In the real world, there’s a word for this: collusion. But the Times put a positive glow on the phenomenon, attributing the industry-wide increases to “a remarkable discipline shown by the airlines.”

Remarkable, indeed! And how have the high-flying giants been able to achieve such discipline? By deliberately shrinking competition – both through mergers that establish fewer and bigger giants and by agreeing to cut the number of flights that each one offers. No competition, no choice. Take it, or leave it.

This is monopolization in action. But that’s such an unpleasant word (not to mention an illegal act), so the Times chose to go with a benign, industry-approved euphemism: consolidation.

You might expect journalists to question what clearly appears to be rank profiteering through the deliberate shrinkage of consumer choice. Instead, the article approvingly quotes a Wall Street analyst praising the airlines for showing “voluntary capacity discipline.” How Orwellian!

And what about that blitzkrieg of fees currently pelting consumers and artificially goosing airline profits? Dare it be called what it is: gouging? Not by the Times, which gently notes that the monopolists are being “increasingly creative” in assessing fees, though it does concede that the benefit for passengers is “opaque.”

What’s really opaque is the journalistic value of such corporate-friendly obfuscation.

Meanwhile, airline executives are showing in myriad ways that they hate their customers! Not so very long ago, airlines boasted about flying “the friendly skies,” but that happy slogan has now been perverted into flying “the abusive skies.”

For example, what does a ticket cost? The airlines won’t come clean even on this basic question. We do know that stated ticket prices have been steadily rising, with double-digit increases in the past year.

 But that price is merely the starting point for today’s airline hucksters. The real gouging is in the frenzy of fees that airlines have invented, many of which are not even disclosed to us and most of which are simply unwarranted. Last year, airline fees totaled nearly $8 billion – a consumer subsidy siphoned right out of our pockets into the corporate coffers.

Take the “ticket change” fee. If something comes up, forcing you to change a flight from the one you’d booked, you’re hit with a service fee of $150. Plus, you must pay the difference if your new flight is priced higher (which it will be).

What a ripoff! This rebooking “service” is done by computer, costing the airline more like a buck-fifty, rather than a hundred and fifty. Also, notice that airlines themselves routinely cancel or delay our flights, forcing us into inconvenient and thoroughly unpleasant travel changes – yet they don’t pay us $150 for their changes.

American Airlines, however, has generously offered to cut its rebooking fee in half – if you pay a “flexibility” fee of $19 when you book your flight. Then, any changes you need to make later will only cost you $75. Yes, it’s a fee to reduce your fee!

Airline honchos claim that these incessant fee-bites are necessary to make their companies profitable. Really? Maybe they should check with Southwest Airlines, which says it will refuse to charge for any service that’s historically been free to customers. And, unlike the other big carriers, Southwest has consistently stayed profitable.   

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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