When Vladimir Putin signed a law this week that allows Russia to confiscate a fleet of more than 500 foreign-owned aircraft, a possible precursor to nationalization, it reminded travelers of their darkest revenge fantasies.
If an airline fails to meet its customer service obligations, what if we could just seize the plane? For the very worst air carriers, what if we could nationalize the whole company, allowing the government to run it properly?
And why stop at airlines? I know travelers who would love to get the keys to a hotel, a cruise ship, or maybe a travel insurance company. Or they would at least like the pleasure of watching the government confiscate it.
We had a fun discussion about that in our Friday Forum.
One of my readers put this idea in my head after he placed a lien on a plane in Canada (more on that in a second). It turns out that the subject of nationalizing airlines comes up during every economic crisis, and maybe it's time to try something like it now.
Should we confiscate the planes?
If an airline can’t treat its customers right, should the government confiscate the planes? I’d love to hear your opinion. Push the red button to leave a comment or scroll all the way to the bottom to join the discussion.
A lien on your plane for lousy service?
A few years ago, one of my readers reported that he had fulfilled his revenge fantasy against a Canadian airline.
He'd asked the carrier for a refund to which he was entitled under the law. It refused. So he filed a lien against one of its planes. The airline quickly paid up.
What a novel strategy, I thought. When I shared the story with other travelers, they confessed to having similar daydreams. What if I could find some way of threatening to seize a ship, a hotel, or a fleet of rental cars when the company fails to meet its obligations?
Interestingly, businesses do this to us all the time. I remember asking an architect to help with an extension of my house, which we had outgrown after having a baby. Before we started, I asked him if our neighborhood's strict zoning laws and restrictions would be a problem. He assured me that he would "take care of everything."
When I brought the draft to the planning department, a city employee told me the extension could never be built. I told the architect I wanted a refund.
He didn't mess around. He threatened to file a lien on my house unless I immediately paid him what I owed. I complied.
So why can't customers turn the tables when companies disappoint them? I searched for other examples of consumers filing a lien on a company, but it turns out it's a novel strategy, especially in the travel industry. People still prefer small claims court, credit card disputes or just a good ol' fashioned social media shaming.
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Should we nationalize airlines?
Whenever things get bad — I mean really bad — some wiseguy always mentions nationalizing airlines. Now, to be clear, what Russia did is not exactly nationalization. It's more like a government lien.
The argument goes something like this: Airlines are part of our essential national transportation infrastructure. They're too important to be left in private hands. And now, after 9/11, the Great Recession, the pandemic, maybe we should just let the government take over.
This time, it's a particularly seductive idea since the government handed $80 billion worth of bailout money to the airlines during the pandemic. So, if the industry can't get its act together and serve the traveling public with dignity and efficiency, shouldn't we just nationalize it?
In the early days of the pandemic, several left-leaning media organizations argued forcefully for the nationalization of American airlines. Also, allowing U.S. taxpayers to own a majority of the shares would benefit the environment and workers and would improve customer comfort, the critics said.
Public sentiment was on their side; many of us remember the airline industry before 1978 and would like to turn the clock back to the golden age of customer service. Technically, those airlines were not nationalized, but heavily regulated to the point where they couldn't do anything without government approval.
It would be nice to have all of those things, but that's no reason to nationalize an airline (or any other company, for that matter). In the developed world and in a democracy, nationalization should happen when it benefits the economy over the long term. For example, many people feel that the United States should nationalize healthcare to lower healthcare costs over time. That's an interesting idea.
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Maybe we need a credible threat of nationalization
All it would take is an activist government — and an airline to make an example of. An activist government might say, "You know, that dictator had an interesting idea when he seized $10 billion worth of planes." Then, it would find an airline that truly despises its passengers and treats them like cargo, maybe one of the "ultra" low-cost airlines.
It doesn't matter why, but the government would just seize the customer-unfriendly airline's assets, appoint a board and run it in the public interest. That would put the other airlines on notice that they could be next. If they generate too many complaints or customer lawsuits, their fleet will become like Putin's planes. We'll full-on nationalize them!
It isn't nationalization, but the threat of nationalization, that would make airlines straighten up and fly right. And this strategy could work for other companies. What if the government confiscated the Carnival Celebration, a $950 million vessel? Or if they placed a lien on that new five-star hotel that opened in your town and cost $150 million to build?
Now that's what I call a deterrent.
Would that happen? Not with this government. But there's a broader point to be made. For years, consumer advocates like me have been saying that there are fine laws on the books and that the government simply needs to enforce them. What if the government actually did its job and started to punish airlines for their bad service? What if it threatened to take away the planes of airlines that failed to follow the law?
What's your take?
Do you think confiscation — or even nationalization — is a way to pressure companies into providing decent customer service? The comments are open.
About the art
"I wanted to represent an airplane being co-opted by a foreign, stealthy hand from the sky," says artist Dustin Elliott. He also did his best to include all passengers in the drawing — women, children, and the elderly — as a commentary on the disastrous invasion of Ukraine, which has spared no one.