No, technology is not what’s wrong with American air travel

In reading the many reactions to this week’s United Airlines horror story, we should not be surprised to see some blaming technology.  Air travel is, obviously, a very technology-intensive enterprise, from aircraft to the complex support structure of airports, fuel, training, and so on.  As consumers, fliers increasingly experience air travel through digital layers, like using online booking and handheld devices for in-flight work and entertainment.

Technology is an easy fall guy for what’s wrong with American air travel.  Focusing on it lets us ignore other, far more powerful causes.  Technology is also a shiny target, making for fun headlines and clicks.  Foregrounding tech engages both technophobes and tech fiends, as I’ve documented for more than a decade on another blog.

airplane deicing

Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times column today offers a good example of this technology misdirection.  It’s worth reading carefully to tease out ways people misuse technology critique, and how we can instead better understand air travel.  

Manjoo’s thesis is that in many ways, “technology has only fueled the industry’s race to the bottom… [in] customer service”.   Travelers tend to  use technology – mostly web services like Kayak or Expedia, here – to select flights based only on price and timing, so airlines respond accordingly.    “Customer service — that is, how the airline treats you — isn’t often part of the transaction. As a result, airlines have little incentive to reform themselves.”  Therefore the web is to blame for bad service: “Airlines are …  content to feed you ever-worse service for lower prices, because that’s what the web wants.”

For a short column, “How Technology Has Failed to Improve Your Airline Experience” wanders from its thesis pretty frequently.  It wants to blame technology, but slides off to other targets:

What keeps deteriorating are comfort and quality of service for low-end passengers (i.e., most people). Legroom keeps shrinking. Airlines keep tacking on separate fees for amenities we used to consider part of the flight. And customers keep going along with it.

Notably, Manjoo doesn’t blame tech for these reasons, although he could.  For instance, one classic view of technology is that is narcotizes people, turning them into couch potatoes, fake news gobblers, or video-game-obsessed zombies.    He could have argued that today’s traveler is too tech-addled to protest bad service, but sidesteps that thought. 

airplane wheel over cityThe column also offers odd views of air travel reality, like this rosy sketch of the air travel business: “airlines are doing well; profits are up across the globe, despite your annoyance about flying.”  In fact said airlines have razor-thin margins and frequently go bankrupt or merge (hello, American Airlines; how is your digestion?).  Moreover, “profits are up across the globe” isn’t the point, since the article is just about air travel in the States.

To be fair, Manjoo mentions two other reasons for American air travel going wrong.  In his opening paragraph he notes “regulatory failures as well as consolidation, which the authorities have allowed to occur unabated for decades” (see here for a take from 2012).  Yes, those are powerful drivers.  Naturally, they don’t appear again in the piece, because they’re not technology-driven and aren’t shiny objects.  Manjoo also contradicts himself by sometimes seeing tech as not the cause of bad air travel, but just a worsening factor: “the airline industry’s business model… has been accelerated by tech.”  He even comes close to blaming neoliberalism: “What we are witnessing is the basest, ugliest form of tech-abetted, bottom-seeking capitalism”.  These exceptions and contradictions, if pursued, would have led to a very different, and much more useful, article.

Surprisingly, Manjoo doesn’t mention algorithms.  John Robb does a good job of describing how they drove many of the decisions, from shaping the offer levels gate agents could emit to scheduling.

As a frequent air traveler, I certainly agree about the lack of customer service and overall quality information being a problem.  However, this isn’t a tech issue, but a business one.  To begin with, the airlines offering most flights are not usefully distinct in quality, so selecting between them in terms of service is usually not too useful.  Arguably we’re experiencing a market failure in American air travel, at least as far as customer service is concerned.

scary plane ticket

Ah, the notorious four Ss.

Yet Manjoo in his haste to bash technology leaves off the many ways tech improves our air travel experience.  Searching for lower fares is vitally important for most of us, from business travelers on budgets to the majority of non-wealthy, non-middle-class travelers, and web services make that easier, despite Manjoo’s critique.  And some services *do* offer reviews of certain flights, which I, personally, find useful.  The web also offers us  information otherwise hard to obtain, from flight info (I use Flightaware) to a guide on which airports are best to sleep in.  Tech adds to our work and entertainment options, from tablet movies offering a vastly larger variety than the paltry handful planes screen, to Kindle books (my preference) and laptops for writing, spreadsheets, PowerPoint, etc (which I do, if there’s room).  I even ran a little wiki on airport restaurants for a while (note to readers: should I relaunch it?).

Even Manjoo agrees at the very end, : “Your only technological hope for better service is your smartphone camera and the viral push of social networks: If you are violently kicked off your flight, at least your fellow passengers will post a video to Facebook.”

So let’s add other, more significant reasons for American air travel’s suckage.

First, the American air market has not focused on customer service.  This is obvious to any traveler, but it’s worth emphasizing.  Instead, airlines worked on two other causes: keeping prices low, and above all maintaining safety.  They can, and have done, both of those without expending a shred of effort in making non-first-class customers comfy.

airplane in cemetery

Second, airports offer a reliable awful experience, independent of airlines.  Airlines are airports’ tenants, and the most visible face of air travel, beyond airport stores, which are also tenants. In contrast, airport management is invisible, anti-transparent, and nearly impossible to find for most travelers.  They don’t do decent customer service, because of this invisibility, apart from the occasional information person.  Restaurants are usually terrible.  Airport suckage could be another case of market failure, as we rarely get to choose from multiple departure and destination sites.

Third, TSA, and I need say little about this.  That’s a force independent of airlines and, to an extent, also of airports.  Their workers are paid badly and perform drudgery, yes.  But they largely accomplish security theater and offer a finely-tuned bad experience for most passengers.  (They do use technology in interesting and at times bad ways; I’m surprised Manjoo left that off)

We could go further and argue that the post-9-11/War on Terror security arrangement has had broader effects, accustoming passengers to general scrutiny and inhumanity.  The second half of the John Robb piece I linked above refers to this as “authoritarian decision making (common on modern air travel)”.  Robb goes on to reference legitimate violence and assumptions of obedience.  These are two of the contours of our War on Terror world.

Beyond these reasons, the biggest cause of airline woes today is how the business world works today, or what some of us call neoliberalism.  If we see airlines as doing what most companies do, that is everything they can to maximize profit (i.e., shareholder value on a quarterly basis) at the expense of anything customers might want it is utterly unsurprising that they constantly come up with new ways to squeeze dollars out of us.  That’s what Manjoo starts gesturing towards, maybe, when he veers off into “What we are witnessing is the basest, ugliest form of tech-abetted, bottom-seeking capitalism”.  

You can see signs of this business culture in the sheer crowdedness of most flights.  I can testify to this, anecdotally, but some data helps.  See how flights are 83.4% full now?  Scroll back through time to see eras when the number was in the 70s, or even the 50s.  A full flight is a complete win for an airline; every empty seat is lost revenue, since they have to fly, fuel, and staff the plane anyway.

The impact of today’s corporate ethos also appears in the rise of airline mergers and takeovers, which means fewer airlines for customers to approach.  There’s a nice infographic from Buzzfeed on this:

airline consolidation 2005-2016_Buzzfeed chart

Depending on your airports and travel, you might not be able to choose from all of the above right.  Competition isn’t doing much for us on this score.

Let’s add to today’s business model a predatory attitude towards workers.  Recall that Fordism is long gone, as are most union jobs. Most airline staff are badly paid, from pilots down to gate agents.  From what I can tell airport staff eke out minimum wage positions.  All deal with customers during moments of stress.  Is it any wonder they don’t all treat fliers with warmth and affection?

airport sunset

Yes, technology plays a role in all of these factors, and air travel is impossible without at least mid-twentieth-century technology.  But it’s a mistake to blame the United story or today’s general air travel angst on the digital world, when these other forces are so much more effective.  At worst an overfocus on tech is misdirection, drawing our gaze away from how business currently operates.  Watch for that.

(all photos are mine)

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One Response to No, technology is not what’s wrong with American air travel

  1. Bryan,
    You are spot on. Manjoo’s piece is way off the mark…not a technology problem.

    Like

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