United against the world

If you use Twitter as much as us, you are bound to have seen the surreal video of a 69-year old doctor being violently ‘re-accommodated’ from his seat on a United Airlines plane and dragged down the aisle despectacled and bloodied while surrounding passengers cry in shock. The incident was the result of the airline overbooking the flight and needing a seat for a member of staff. After an entertaining carousel of passing the buck, United airlines is now investigating the  incident, but insists in internal emails, that their “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this”.

Fortunately few suggestions have been made advocating the prohibition of overbooking or further regulation of the airline industry. However, there is a fundamental problem with the market for domestic flights in the USA; it is a literal oligopoly. Four firms shared 68.8% of the whole market in 2016.

This is exacerbated by ‘Fortress Hubs’ where a single airline controls a large majority of all flights out of an airport - turned off by United’s abysmal customer service? Tough luck if you have to fly out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, 78% of all seats are on United planes. In 2015, the Department of Justice had to block a United acquisition that would have given them 75% share of flight slots at Newark airport.

Expanding anti-trust regulations designed by lawyers will not be not the answer to this problem. Prior to the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, travel by air was a luxury and limited to the wealthy, but the act liberalised standards, encouraged additional routes and more airlines; by 1990, fares had fallen by 30% in real terms.

But one particularly egregious bulwark to competition remains - the protectionist cabotage rules that prohibit foreign and international airlines operating within the US. It may be that the air industry has a minimum efficient scale—firms need to be a certain size to compete. If only US firms can compete within America, then there can only ever be a small number of firms controlling the market. But even if this minimum efficient scale exists, the world market as a whole will be able to support dozens of effective firms.

Repealing these would reinvigorate competition and choice in the domestic market, push down prices, boost quality and undermine the complacent corporate culture that has led to what will inevitably be a go-to business studies guide on how not to do PR and customer care.