Why US Airline Service is So Bad


Iyer wants to know why US airlines are so crap – why "a place

in Northwest’s business class has afforded me less comfort than a seat

in the economy class of the national airlines of Bolivia, Cuba and even North

Korea". John

Gapper thinks it has something to do with "the refusal of airlines

to lie down and die" – certainly I don’t think the big US government

airline bailout in the wake of 9/11 did any favors to the travellling public

in the long term. But I think that the answer to Iyer’s question is actually

hidden in his own post, when he tells us that United’s frequent-flier program

"is more generous than it has to be".

Note that the centerpiece of Iyer’s complaint is an abortive trip from California

to Japan, one where Iyer turns out to be quite happy being rebooked on Japan’s

ANA rather than having to fly on United with his original booking. The question

naturally arises: if United is so crap, why was he booked on them in the first

place? And the answer presents itself: the frequent-flyer program, which, like

most US airlines’ frequent-flier programs, has developed a life of its own.

America, it seems, has been successfully captured by the US airlines, to the

point at which most US residents simply don’t fly on any other planes. If you’re

a Brit, and you’re flying abroad, you’ll generally choose the cheapest and most

convenient flight, no matter what class you’re travelling in and no matter whether

you’re flying for business or pleasure. If you’re an American flying abroad,

by contrast, you’ll almost certainly end up flying an American airline.

When I used to fly from the US to Latin America every so often, I’d generally

fly the local airlines to get down there: Lan, Aerolineas, Varig. None of them

were spectacularly good, I must say. But one thing which jumped out at me was

the fact that there were almost no Americans on those flights – the Americans

always ended up flying on American or Continental. Maybe part of that was fear

of the unknown, but I suspect a much bigger part was those frequent-flyer accounts.

Americans have been conditioned to expect to either earn or spend frequent-flyer

miles on every flight they take – something which mitigates strongly against

taking any foreign airline. Even sophisticated cosmopolitan New Yorkers, well

aware that Virgin and BA are extremely competitive with American and Continental

to Heathrow, still nearly always end up taking a US carrier.

One can understand how the US ended up in this position. If you’re a country

like the UK or Germany, where most people travel to many different countries

quite regularly and have a wide choice of airlines, any one airline has a relatively

small chance of locking in frequent fliers. If you’re an airline in a small

country where the citizens don’t travel a lot, then those citizens

who do travel are largely captive, and your best bet is to compete

on quality against the airlines of the countries you’re flying to.

The US, by contrast, is unique in that most US airline passengers spend most

of their time on domestic flights, racking up domestic miles. When they do occasionally

fly abroad, they simply stick with the plan they’re in. Is there another country

where most flights are domestic, and where the big domestic airlines are also

the big international airlines? I don’t think so, but that seems like it could

be a recipe for reliance on frequent-flyer plans rather than high-quality service.

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