In the wake of United's stunning customer service calamity on April 9, consumer groups, politicians, passengers, and even The Wall Street Journal have suggested you boycott the airline. Here is a prediction: You will not join that boycott.
Yes, United treated passenger David Dao horribly, and then at first tried to blame him for his own assault. (Memo to airlines: resolving customer service issues does not start with calling your lawyers.) It left CEO Oscar Munoz, who had up to that time been leading a remarkable culture change at the airline, looking like just another corporate weasel.
But you won't be boycotting United, or any other major airline, because you need them more than they need you. This wasn't always the case. When the term "major" included carriers such as Northwest, US Airways, Continental, and before that the likes of TWA and Pan Am, we had choices. We also had backup options, because of something called interline agreements. If you got bumped off United, or got delayed getting to the airport, then American would honor the ticket and take you where you needed to go. What mattered then was serving the passengers, not the airlines. And it worked well in a regulated industry.
Over the past two decades, though, the major airlines were battered into mergers by low-cost competitors, high oil prices, the 9/11 crisis, and the Great Recession. Today, the surviving majors control about 80 percent of the market. If you think you can get anywhere without them, you must be on Amtrak. Good luck with that.
Let's say you wanted to fly nonstop from Chicago to oh, Louisville. You have just two options: United and American -- on 50-seat regional jets such as a Canadair 700 or an Embraer RJ145. And it's not just you who is short on choices. If you're the city of Louisville, there's no question about needing United; you are desperate to have the company in your fair city.
For secondary markets that are trying to attract businesses, the frequency of airline service and the number of nonstops to larger cities are barometers of competitiveness. Dr. Dao was on that Republic commuter jet because he was connecting from Los Angeles through United's O'Hare hub. You can't fly nonstop between L.A. and Louisville.
The majors have retracted service across the country in their efforts to improve yield. A few years ago, Delta closed its Comair commuter airline in Cincinnati, a blow to that city and the smaller markets it fed, which included Louisville. According to the Regional Airline Association, between 2013 and 2016, 52 U.S. airports had their passenger air service yanked completely. More than 208 lost at least 20 percent of their service. Airlines have also employed a tactic called "upgaging"--using bigger planes but flying less frequently, because 50-seat jets are economically useless.
What we are left with is the hub-and-spoke, a.k.a. hub-and-hope, network, in which major carriers set up fortress hubs and suck money out of them. In the New York City area, United is the dominant player at Newark Liberty airport. There you'll find fares that are typically higher than those available at JFK and LaGuardia for similar routes. If you live in the Garden State, your options are to pay up or spend money and time getting to the other area airports. Fortress hubs are one reason that airlines reported record results in their most recent earnings reports.
Don't expect the majors to expand capacity just because they're raking in profits. Wall Street has a conniption every time a carrier so much as suggests adding seats. Discipline is now the watchword of the airlines. So go ahead, boycott United if you wish. But could you do it on a day that I'm traveling? Maybe I won't get stuck in a middle seat.