3/31/07

You Don't Always Get What You Pay For

Almost getting stuck in an airport overnight (apparently a common experience) gave me a lot of time to think about the air travel industry. It seems a bit out of place in a capitalist economy: in a market supposedly driven by consumers, travelers are awfully sheeplike. They pay an often inordinate amount of money for a fairly simple product: to be delivered safely to their destination. Yet travel often seems less like a business transaction and more like high-stakes gambling. Flights are delayed or canceled; baggage is lost; passengers, in the euphemistic terms of flight attendants, "misconnect." To me, this seems like receiving a faulty product, yet airlines disclaim almost all responsibility for problems encountered by travelers. And while travelers may protest vehemently when their airline strands them in an unfamiliar city and refuses to pay for a hotel room, in general people simply accept the idea that flying is a hit-or-miss sort of affair. Now, I understand that airlines cannot control the weather. On the other hand, neither can their passengers, but when the weather affects travel plans, passengers are almost always left to shift for themselves. United, for example, will not provide any sort of compensation other than a ticket refund for flights canceled due to weather. Late in the day, with no chance at a standby flight till morning, this leaves passengers stranded in a strange place, forced to locate their own transportation and place to stay at their own expense. Clearly the airline has not delivered the promised product, but consumers are oddly complacent. The problem, I think, is that in this case the supplier has been set up in the role of authority figure. Society has done a good job of teaching us to bow to authority. Since I don't foresee any great uprising against the authoritarian regime of the air travel industry, I guess I'll just have to take my chances with tomorrow's flight.