Unfriendly skies won’t improve anytime soon

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Demonstrators protest outside the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday, days after a passenger was dragged off a plane by airport police. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A viral video of a man being dragged off a plane, bloodied and bruised, has prompted widespread condemnation of United Airlines, which forcibly removed a paying customer from a flight to make room for airline employees who needed to get from Chicago to Louisville.

This follows another incident weeks back where United refused to allow passengers flying for free on employee passes to board wearing leggings.

This latest video shows a new level of airline abuse. Even if some reports are true that the passenger, a doctor who claimed he needed to see patients the following morning, was belligerent to airline employees and law enforcement before being smashed head-first into an armrest and then twice removed from the plane, it would seem inarguable that United made serious errors in judgment.


In the wake of this latest incident, travelers accustomed to airline inconveniences and abuses are asking all the right questions:

♦ Why didn’t United sort out its overbooking issue before passengers boarded the flight?

♦ Why did it offer only an $800 United voucher instead of the federally-required minimum of $1,350 in cash to convince passengers to give up their seats?

♦ Why were United employees — who could have taken another flight — prioritized at the expense of paying customers?

What I do know is that United will make out just fine.

Because the system is rigged, a boycott is almost certainly futile. And United knows this.

If you have to get from A to B, and United is offering the most convenient flight, you will take it and find a way to momentarily suppress your moral indignation for a window seat, Wi-Fi and cheese plate for purchase.

There’s a reason shares of United Continental Holdings closed up nearly 1 percent on Monday, just as a United boycott was trending on Twitter. And that legging-gate, two weeks earlier, had zero effect on the company’s share price. (Though Tuesday, the stock was plummeting.)

Why? After countless mergers and consolidations, customers have few options and almost no power. The Obama administration approved three major airline mergers leaving four companies in control of 80 percent of the market. The big three — American, Delta and United — can coordinate their international flights, schedules and fares and split their profits in what Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group, calls a “legal cabal.”

There is no necessity, let alone incentive, to lower the cost of air travel, or add more airports or flights. Even though the cost of jet fuel has fallen by as much as 70 percent in the last two years, the airlines have kept most of those savings, lowering fares just four percent in 2015.

Airline executives have openly discussed “capacity discipline,” or limiting the number of available seats on flights to allow for higher fares. American Airlines President Scott Kirby was caught bragging in an internal presentation about “three successful fare increases (we were) able to pass along to customers because of consolidation.”

In the last big suit against airline collusion, the Justice Department caved under pressure from lobbyists and the White House to ignore the anti-customer practices of the airlines. The next best hope for customers is an antitrust suit over capacity discipline that was given the green light by a federal judge late last year.

But don’t hold your breath.

Whether price gouging, enforcing a dumb dress code or dragging passengers off flights, the airlines operate with enormous immunity, and because of their monopoly, customers have no power of the purse. We can shame United all we want, but the skies aren’t likely to get any friendlier.

Contact Cupp atthesecupp.com.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

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