How to stop the madness
Airlines are having their worst summer ever. Here's the fix.
Maybe you were too busy rebooking your canceled flight to notice that JetBlue and Spirit Airlines announced plans to merge. Maybe you also didn't see the pre-emptive reaction from two U.S. lawmakers, who called on the government to fix the airline mess we currently find ourselves in.
But it's been that kind of week. Now, in the middle of this summer of cancellations and abysmal customer service and frequent airline delays, we've finally arrived here: It's time to stop the madness.
The benefits of combining JetBlue and Spirit — or any other proposed airline combination — are far outweighed by the permanent damage this unholy airline union will cause. And nothing less than firm government regulation can stop a repeat of this crazy summer for air travel.
But what does all of this mean to you?
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Will the JetBlue-Spirit merger help passengers?
The airlines are promising you the world: lower fares, service to more cities, a better airline. A major carrier with a low-fare legacy — "the best of both worlds," it says. And yes, they literally used those words in the announcement.
But customers aren't buying it.
They've heard it before. Remember all the promises they made when American Airlines and U.S. Airways merged back in 2013? Or what they said when Northwest hooked up with Delta in 2008? You can go down the list and check off all the lies — the service lost, the higher fares, the jobs eliminated because of "synergies."
The only clear beneficiaries were the shareholders.
"Airline mergers, just like any large corporate mergers, are never good for the consumer," wrote commenter Gerri Hether.
That seems to be the consensus on this planned merger, too.
I'd be shocked if anything positive came out of this corporate marriage. It's possible that removing one of the worst airlines for customer service — Spirit — might make air travel less awful. But it's also possible that Spirit will drag JetBlue further down.
JetBlue has already fallen far since its early days when it could claim to "bring back humanity" to air travel and passengers wouldn't laugh out loud. Long gone are the seats with generous legroom and real customer service. Today, JetBlue is all about collecting more fees and ironic slogans reminding you that JetBlue sucks a little less than the legacy carriers.
In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Sens. Alex Padilla and Elisabeth Warren suggest the government should stop the planned merger. JetBlue, it notes, is already the subject of a Department of Justice antitrust suit over its anticompetitive alliance with American Airlines.
"A merger with Spirit could allow it to raise fares in routes with limited low-cost carrier competition and would leave Frontier as the only large ultra-low-cost carrier," they note.
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How do you fix this summer air travel mess?
Of course, all of this is happening against the backdrop of the worst summer for air travel in recent memory.
I've already detailed many of this summer's air travel woes in this newsletter. but here's a recap:
Cancellations have almost doubled. Since the beginning of the year, 136,657 flights (2.6 percent) have been canceled. That compares to 60,898 canceled flights a year ago (1.4 percent).
Delays are up 5 percentage points. From Jan. 1 to July 30, 2022, we've had 1,082,579 delayed flights (20.8 percent). That compares to 631,632 delayed flights a year ago (14.9 percent).
Airline complaints are three times higher than they were before the pandemic. And that's just the ones the Department of Transportation is getting. I receive lots more on my consumer advocacy site. I haven't come up for air yet.
The lawmakers have urged the DOT to get tough on these cancellations and delays, particularly after airlines received $81 billion in government aid during the pandemic.
How would they do that? The government has the authority to start fining airlines for delays, say lawmakers. It can also issue a uniform definition of "significantly delayed" flights. Currently, the government leaves it up to airlines to define "significant." When there's a significant delay, passengers can request a ticket refund.
The DOT could also end overbooking. The senators suggest the government should impose fines, in addition to the required compensation, on airlines that bump their passengers. On the matter of cancellations, the senators don't have any specific recommendations other than to do better.
The solution may be even simpler: Just cut and paste EC 261, the European airline consumer protection, into the Federal Register. EC 261 protects passengers against delays, cancellation and overbooking.
And it works. Problem solved.
What does this mean to you?
I hope you don't have plans to fly anywhere this month. But if you do, here's what you need to know.
It's bad out there
Last Monday, for example, airlines canceled almost 5 percent of their flights. The previous weekend wasn't much better, with about 3 percent of all flights canceled, slightly more than average. Read up on your rights for canceled and delayed flights. Avoid flying if possible.
A merger won't affect anything — for now
The JetBlue-Spirit merger, if it happens, is still two years away. Until then, the competitive landscape is unlikely to change much, at least for passengers of either airline. You'll still get shades of the old JetBlue when you fly on 2022 JetBlue. And Spirit? Well, you've already been warned. But in 2024, if the carriers join up, prepare for higher fares and worse service.
No one will do anything until after the midterms
Sens. Warren and Padilla know that the DOT is frozen in time until the midterm elections. And as much as I think their ideas have some merit, let's just call this what it is: They're grandstanding at a time when everyone is focused on air travel. (Can you imagine them putting out this proposal in September? Neither can I.) The real work happens next year when lawmakers start putting together the FAA Reauthorization Bill. Wouldn't it be great if they could codify EC 261 in there?
One thing is clear: This can't continue.
Washington did something monumentally stupid. It gave airlines an $81 billion bailout and asked for almost nothing in return. And nothing is exactly what it got. This summer, the U.S. airline industry is a laughingstock of the world, with its predictable cancellations, delays and horrible customer service.
It's time to stop the madness.
Will these solutions work?
I'd love to get your opinion. Will any solutions proposed by Sens. Warren and Padilla fix the airline industry? Or is the airline industry unfixable? The comments are open.
About the art
Artist Aren Elliott has been hanging out at the Tate Modern Art Museum in London, which inspired his illustration on the JetBlue-Spirit merger.
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