Airplanes lined up on runway
Photograph ©2008 by Brian Cohen.

Is Robert Reich Correct About Why Air Travel “Sucks”?

Is the commercial aviation industry worsening?

He served as the 22nd secretary of labor in the United States from Wednesday, January 20, 1993 through Monday, January 20, 1997 under Bill Clinton, who was president of the United States at that time — so with his experience, is Robert Reich correct about why air travel “sucks”?

Is Robert Reich Correct About Why Air Travel “Sucks”?

Twelve hours after this video of six minutes in length was released on Wednesday, September 6, 2023, 72,886 views of Robert Reich channeling his inner Randy Petersen by wearing a costume were already recorded — along with 1,160 comments which have already posted in response.

Along with the premise that what airlines do mirrors trends in other industries in the economy — which are experiencing similar degradations — Reich lists five reasons why air travel has worsened in recent years to which he also concludes are the five biggest problems with the economy in the United States in general:

  1. Consolidation means fewer choices
  2. Companies charging more for less
  3. Exploiting workers
  4. The illusion of scarcity
  5. Misdirected rage

Here is the video in question:

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus pandemic turned out to be an excellent example of how companies have been taking advantage of us and accelerating all five of the supposed biggest problems with the economy in the United States, as discussed in this article which argues that we were not truly all in this together after all. The pandemic merely exacerbated existing problems, which became more exposed.

Not the Answers: Tougher Antitrust Enforcement From the Government and Unions

The solutions that Reich proposes for resolving the aforementioned issues are not the answers: tougher antitrust enforcement from the government and unions.

Tougher antitrust enforcement from the government should only be used sparingly at best. Government intervention is rarely the solution that improves the economy. However, Reich might be correct pertaining to the acquisition of Spirit Airlines by JetBlue Airways, as lawyers for the latter airline mistakenly failed to redact a key piece of information during the process of discovery which revealed that fares would potentially increase by as much as 40 percent after the acquisition was completed — despite public assertions to the contrary.

One crucial note which Reich fails to address is that government intervention is actually responsible for much of the consolidation of the commercial aviation industry — as well as the other industries he mentioned in his video — in the United States in the form of official approvals of mergers and acquisitions.

As for unions, they may solve some issues; but they can themselves cause a different set of problems for both employees and customers of industries — such as countless labor disputes and industrial actions that ultimately inconvenience customers. Flight attendants of Delta Air Lines have repeatedly refused to join a union over the years for a number of reasons — most notably, that they do not see the advantages of joining a union significantly outweighing the disadvantages.

Reich generally argues in his video that wealthy people get richer on the backs of ordinary people, which is true to a point. John Stossel debunks that theory in this video — as well as other videos — by saying that not only do super wealthy people not take more than their share of wealth from other people; but that they help to actually improve the standard of living for even the poorest people on the planet via capitalism because wealth can be created. The amount of money in the world is not fixed to a certain amount.

Think about the computer or electronic device that you are using to read this article. Thanks to the dedication, creativity, and intelligence of a number of people, most of us — even the poorest of people — have a device on which we can access the world. Almost no one could have envisioned technology being so ubiquitous as few as 70 years ago. If the people responsible for ensuring that the technology we use and enjoy today were limited on how they can be compensated, we might not have nearly as much technology at our disposal today because — other than passion and pride — they might not have the incentive to do so.

Capitalism indeed has quite a number of flaws — it is certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination — but it is arguably the overall best economic system available in the world today.

Final Boarding Call

One important note to consider and remember is that the last crash of a commercial airplane in the United States that involved at least one fatality was that of the crash of Continental Connection flight 3407 — whose airplane was operated by Colgan Air — on Friday, February 13, 2009, which crashed into a private home near Buffalo in New York and resulted in the deaths of 44 passengers, four Continental crew members, and one person on the ground. The record of safety of commercial aviation is not only not in question here; but has thankfully been nearly perfect in the past 14 years and arguably the best safety record in the history of commercial aviation.

Although some parts of the video are somewhat sensational and perhaps oversimplified, I generally agree with Robert Reich — especially about the part of how people in power manipulate everyone else to fight each other over issues instead of encouraging people to collaborate and resolve issues together. All I need to do is read some of the comments of some of the articles I have written over the years at The Gate With Brian Cohen to be reminded of that, as some of them accuse me of being the problem. Here is a news flash to those people: I am not as powerful as you might think to be the problem; and I am not your enema — er…enemy. I simply attempt to engage in thoughtful discussion. Disagreeing with me is not only all right; but it is encouraged. That is part of the reason why I keep the Comments section open and mostly unmoderated.

As for wealth: I have argued against both players and owners of Major League Baseball earning millions upon millions of dollars per year and do not believe they deserve it in this article — but if people are willing to pay usurious fees for tickets and concessions, who am I to argue? People also pay through supporting streaming or televising of the sport through subscriptions and patronizing companies through their commercials — and through indirectly supporting airlines and other companies who pay huge sums of money to be official sponsors of teams and have naming rights to stadiums and arenas. Also, both Delta Air Lines and Hertz believe that Tom Brady will improve their businesses and their reputations — and have paid him handsomely to do so.

I refuse to directly support ventures such as sports and entertainment, as I get little to no value in return for the ever-increasing expense of attending a game or a live concert. You might disagree; and that is fine.

As futile as it may seem, I do agree with the last solution from Reich about how we potentially have the power as informed consumers to use the free market as best as possible for us. The problem is how we properly inform ourselves. I encounter that issue on a regular basis when writing an article for The Gate With Brian Cohen, as actual reliable sources can be difficult to obtain at times…

…but my hope is that we can figure out how to resolve — or, at least, mitigate — problems and issues which affect us and do what we can to ensure that the world is a better place to live for as many of us as possible.

Photograph ©2008 by Brian Cohen.

  1. As far as the first of the 5 points, consolidation has not necessarily been bad. I present the following summaries of air travel:

    1965 – jets were established but there were still slower propeller aircraft. Lots of milk run routes. Hubs were not well established. Traveling from secondary cities, such as Sacramento, California to Albany, New York was a huge ordeal, expensive and full of stops and changing airlines.

    1980 – airlines were still fragmented. The next year, AAdvantage and TWA Frequent Flight Bonus Program came out. A domestic award was 50,000 miles, which sounded like a lot.

    1995 – Some airline consolidation but the hub system was well established. Columbia, SC to San Francisco, no problem. US Airways through CLT or Delta through ATL were among the many possibilities. Lots of newer airlines flew, like Midwest Express, Air South, Midway Airlines, Kiwi International, etc. Lots of low fares domestically.

    2010 – Some greats were dead or acquired, like Northwest Airlines and TWA but a sandwich on Continental was still available, though not for long. On the other hand, new long routes came into place, like Singapore Airlines A340-500 service Singapore-LAX or EWR. I once flew LAX-SIN nonstop, arriving at 6:30 am and showing up for work at 8:30 am. Fares were still low.

    2023 – Fares are not at its lowest but still not too bad. Seattle to JFK or EWR, for example, have several flights per day compared to maybe once a day in 1985.

  2. Professor Reich is still very amusing all these years later, and still love the dude whether agreeing an awful lot with him or not.

    Long ago, he seemed older than his age, but he hasn’t aged much since then. 😀

      1. Unlike with national politicians and senior bureaucrats, I’m usually pretty bad about putting together names of entertainment industry figures with their faces or their schtick unless I have happened to meet them or am informed that I am likely to meet them. But with a little online sleuthing about who Abe Vigoda was and having seen some of his work over the years, yes, Abe Vigoda would be spot on as being such a person who looked older than their age when younger but then didn’t seem to age all that fast when older.

        FWIW, last month I got carded for alcohol purchase while shopping at the alcohol monopoly store in Sweden. The young checkout clerk couldn’t believe I was as old as I am, but took my verbal response at face value without my having to pull out a passport or other ID. Maybe I am similar to Abe Vigoda in that way. 😀

  3. My problem with giving a pass to consolidation is there is no way to start an airline. The overwhelming hurdles to launching a new, successful airline is impossible. Few will invest, the airline would be disadvantaged in distribution systems, mainlines will undercut their prices to drive them out of business. Remember Independence Air? There are so many ways incumbents use their power against consumers. And DOT/FAA/Congress are owned by airlines and other special interests. That’s why we have so many punitive fees at airlines and other travel companies. Who’s protecting the consumer?

    And for one of your commenters trying to get from as Sacramento, California to Albany, New York now mirrors the difficulty in 1965. Then there are all the cancellations and disruptions and airlines have no incentive to correct any of it because they are never held accountable.

    We definitely need new consumer protections.

    So, I view consolidation as bad, since we can never effectively generate new competition which relegates any newbies to niche markets and serving the leisure market a la Frontier and Spirit and N. Pacific where they do not serve the community needs but only transport folks from cold to hot climes.

    We definitely need more competition which is why I’d like to experiment with foreign carriers being allowed to provide that competition. Where else is it going to come from?

    1. With regard to foreign carriers operating in the United States, Kathryn Creedy, what you are asking for is known as “fifth freedom” flights. I am not sure that is the answer to consolidation of commercial aviation in the United States; but it would bring moderately more competition.

      Ease of entry is a term used in business. Launching a new airline absolutely is quite difficult to do — let alone be successful — to the point where even existing airlines are far from 100 percent successful.

      Launching a new airline certainly does not nearly have the ease of entry of — let’s say…

      …starting a blog…

  4. Kathryn, I agree that it’s hard to come up now with de novo players who can reach enough scale and scope to be meaningful competition; and so we should open the flood gates to foreign investors in the sector and do other things to try to level the playing field for consumers.

    It’s unfortunate, but I don’t see the US Government doing to the airlines what they did to Ma Bell. But one thing that can be relatively easily done is to revoke the ATI that allows for revenue-sharing joint ventures that benefit the TATL and TPAC flying monsters and their go-along-to-get-along partners.

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