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Citizen Dave: It's time to reform the airline industry


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Last week, I spent a good deal of cyber-ink blasting United Airlines. The company is one of the most incompetent, least customer focused big organizations in the world. But in fairness, as bad as United is, it's only the worst part of a horrible industry.

So, rather than just complaining about it, I gave some thought (for what it's worth, and that's not much) to how flying could be improved.

It starts with buying the ticket. I once spent $900 of an organization's money to fly me to Detroit to give a speech in Windsor, Ontario. I could have flown to Paris for less, and then I would have been in France. Nobody's been able to explain to me why that is.

Then there's the awful experience of checking online for a ticket price and coming back the next day to find that it has gone up by a couple of hundred dollars, and then going back again and finding that the price might have come down again. You feel like you're gambling on pork belly futures, not purchasing an airline ticket.

So the suggested solution here is to go back to federal government regulation of prices. We do it at the local level for cab fares, so why not for flights? I'm not wedded to that solution, so if you've got another one I'd like to hear it. But it's hard to argue that the current system is a customer-friendly, easy exchange.

Next comes checking the bags. Ever since the airlines started charging bag fees, there has been chaos, confusion, and frustration. Understandably, nobody wants to pay the fees, so everybody tries to jam the largest possible bag into the cabin. It's a mess.

Here's one solution. If the airlines need to charge more, just roll it into the cost of the ticket. That's going to be far less than $25 a ticket, because how many people pay that now to check a bag? If you spread out that revenue stream to every ticket buyer, I have to think we're talking a few dollars here.

Then there are the inevitable problems, like my lost bag. I dealt with over a dozen United employees to try to recover it. Realizing that they encounter frustrated, demanding people all day, I tried to be as pleasant and good-humored about it all as I could.

I have to say that only one United rep was really bad, while two others were excellent. The rest seemed just overwhelmed. They were trying, but management hasn't given them the training and the tools to do their jobs well. Along with other identifiers, my bag had a plainly visible exterior tag with my business card in it. How hard was it for someone to just pick up the phone, call the number and ask me where to deliver it? I won't bore you with the details, but there were no less than six dropped balls in this process. Again, I found the people sincere and hard working, but something's terribly wrong with United's system.

The solution is better training and equipment. For example, there are the two hours I spent waiting for an answer at the lost baggage station. It should never have taken that long to tell me they couldn't find it. Moreover, the murky lighting, scuffed up podium, and ancient computers all screamed that United didn't care.

Look, I get it. I understand that by its very nature the airline industry is dealing with hundreds of thousands of people every day, all of whom are in a hurry and many of whom are used to getting things their own way.

But that is the business they chose to be in, and it has always been like that. So, why can't they do better? Why isn't the market working to produce a better experience and a more customer-focused industry?

I don't know the answers to those questions, but part of the solution might be in more, not less, regulation in the public interest. The market doesn't seem to be working here. I'd like to hear your thoughts.

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