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The Unfriendly Skies

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When pollsters survey Americans' views about specific companies, cable television providers -- both large conglomerates and smaller regional players -- compose the absolute dregs of the results. Comcast, in particular, has frequently been dubbed America's "most hated company" from the results of these surveys.

It's not so hard to understand why this is: lack of competition. Thanks to government deals, most people have one or maybe two options for cable TV and Internet. From a purely profit-driven perspective, there's not a lot of incentive to spend money ensuring the customer experience is fantastic. We’re all familiar with the “4-hour service window” cable companies are infamous for missing. Anyone who has experienced it would gladly trade the credit on their bill they receive when they miss it for the time wasted waiting back.

The CEO of Delta Airlines, Ed Bastian, would apparently like to bring the already low-level of service U.S. airline companies are providing down the Comcast-level dregs.

It’s been a tough time for airlines lately. When not beating up customers or kicking families off planes, they’re nickel and diming passengers to death. Having flown recently, I can attest to the sympathy a passenger has for cattle stuffed into a small box from the moment you enter the line for the TSA security check to the moment you leave your destination airport. Flying has become a cross between a colonoscopy and a competition to destroy your knees.

It was that experience that piqued my interest on this subject. I discovered that rather than trying to improve their service, Bastian has emerged as a leading champion of airline consolidation, bringing it closer in line with cable service in that regard. He recently described less competition as "unambiguously great" for consumers. “The quality of the [US airline] business is unlike ever before," he added, according to Travel Weekly. You’d almost think the guy doesn’t use his own service.

He even bragged about the billions Delta is pumping into airport redevelopment in New York and Los Angeles. Sure, being comfortable in a nice, modern airport is all well and good, but the memories of that are wiped from your mind when the guy in front of you reclines his seat into your lap and crushes your legs.

But the space, or lack thereof, is less of an issue than the fact that buying a ticket for a flight is just the start of the airline’s journey deep into your wallet. As recently catalogued by John Oliver, the initial decision by airlines to charge for baggage in 2008 drew shock and outrage. These days airlines frequently introduce new fees, and raise their prices in tandem with one another.

Fees added $540 million in revenue in 2007, but rose to $4.2 billion in 2016 -- a 678% increase. Incidentally, this was also the period the industry came to be dominated by four large companies that tend to play nice with one another. Weird how consumers pay more when competition fades, isn’t it?

Now, if Bastian and his peers were just ruthless capitalists striving for profits, you could almost understand this, even if it's bad for consumers. On the contrary, Delta and the other US companies are currently engaged in a well-funded lobbying effort to kill off foreign competitors attempting to enter the US market.

The big airlines have retained Obama operatives like Anita Dunn and Jill Zuckman to push the Trump administration to deny Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etiad Airways the right to land in US airports, purportedly because those airlines are subsidized by their governments.

First of all, this is like Alex Rodriguez calling Barry Bonds a “juicer.” How many times have airlines been bailed out by the government? They can't pay their pensions? Bailout. Company goes bankrupt? Bailout. Not to mention the $15 billion bailout airlines got after 9/11. Now they want a bailout from competition.

Notably, the younger, nimbler US airlines like Southwest and Spirit Airlines have declined to join Delta, United and American in their attempt at crony capitalism.

The kicker for Delta is, while lobbying to use the power of the US government to protect themselves, they were recently exposed as trying to buy foreign-subsidized airplanes on the cheap rather than buying at market-rates from an American company, which has run them afoul of the Commerce Department.

So Delta, like so many companies these days, wants to use the free market as shield from government interference in their decisions, but is perfectly content to use the government as a sword against their competitors. Having recently flown Aer Lingus to Ireland, I can see why they’d fear foreign competition. Cable companies probably felt the same way when satellite TV became an option. It forced them to improve their service, and companies hate that.

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