Why Big Airlines Are a Big Pain

A new report on air traffic praises multinational airlines as the saviors of the industry. But aviation expert Clive Irving says bigger companies are exactly what passengers don’t need.

03.14.10 11:51 AM ET

Airline passengers have become one of the largest groups of regularly abused consumers in the world. They have never been effectively organized into a group with real clout. The airlines, on the other hand, have many lobbyists—those deployed by the companies themselves, and those out there working for the industry’s interests worldwide.

We heard Friday from the people speaking for 230 airlines representing 93 percent of international airline traffic—the International Air Transport Association, based in Geneva. They were in an upbeat mood.

Let’s remember that this is an industry that—with rare exceptions—leaves the impression that passengers are a nuisance, to be tolerated rather than served.

Three months ago, IATA predicted that the world’s airlines would rack up a loss for the whole of 2010 of $5.6 billion. Now they have halved that to $2.8 billion, thanks in large part to booming business in Asia and Latin America, whose economies are making a rapid recovery from recession.

Buried inside the statistics was a comment from the boss of IATA, Giovanni Bisignani. A comment that should send a shiver down the spine of airline customers:

“The stark contrast in profitability among Asian and Latin American carriers while losses continue to plague the rest of the industry clearly demonstrates the fact that airlines have not been able to develop into global businesses.”

We know who he’s speaking for. The likes of Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, and American Airlines, who would all like to become the first truly global airline.

But haven’t we just had a salutary lesson in the risks of making already-large corporations into institutions with more power than any single state? They are called banks. And their practices were exposed as ruinously contagious. Why would anyone want to give airlines that kind of reach?

Bisignani and his industrial masters would no doubt argue that if airlines were really global they could be a lot more flexible when one part of the world is in a slump. They could switch services and resources between markets and be better able to manage what they call “capacity”—meaning seats on sale.

Let’s remember that this is an industry that—with rare exceptions—leaves the impression that passengers are a nuisance, to be tolerated rather than served. Over the last few years they have stripped us of one amenity after another and now ask us to fork up even for cushions and blankets. Not to mention attitude from the cabin staff. All that plus crazy security at every airport.

Which brings me to another discomfort: the announcement Friday by the union representing many of the cabin staff of British Airways that they are going on strike. Previously they had vowed that if they did strike they would avoid the Easter holidays—their last planned strike, halted by a court order, was targeted at Christmas and they got an earful from their customers, so decided to show more respect for the Christian calendar this time.

In fact, the second of their forthcoming strikes, four days from March 27, directly hits the Easter school holiday period when many families were planning their getaways, so not much mercy there.

The larger point here is, however, how deaf to the interests of passengers can you get? There is nothing to choose between cabin staff (and BA’s are some of the highest paid and most pampered in the business) who make the customer their victim and airline corporate cultures that just want to screw us on a global basis. In my view, one reason that the business of airlines in North America is lagging so far behind those in Asia and Latin America is not simply that our economy remains weak. It’s that flying has never been more loathed, the airport experience has become intolerable and the idea that this is a service industry has been abandoned without our consent.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.