Democracy at 30,000 Feet

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision to conduct an audit of airline loyalty programs marks the first serious official investigation of alleged unfairness and deception in the not-so-friendly skies of frequent flying.

While we are generally wary of more government regulation, this time it seems the airlines have brought it upon themselves. Complaints about a veritable circus of bait-and-switch, excessive fine print, and other profiteering tactics have piled up, and the DOT audit could lead the way to regime change.

However, as the investigation — which will take about a year to complete — gets underway, a broader social question has also been raised: Airlines are catering to the big spenders, giving them all the perks, from leg room to head room, while the rest must plead and pay for the smallest amenity. The loyalty programs have come to favor not so much frequent flying as luxurious flying.

Indeed, certain carriers, like United and Delta, are planning to make the paradigm shift early next year, changing their programs to overtly reward customers based on how much they spend rather than on the miles they fly.

As one critic put it, “Frequent-flier programs have widened the airborne caste system to the point where it’s hard to believe everyone’s on the same plane. They’re making air travel worse for all but a few privileged elites.”

In fact, the situation has been getting worse. For example, recently delivered Boeing 737-800s at American Airlines have the same size cabins as the older 737-800s in American’s fleet. But the new planes have 12 more coach seats. Delta and Continental also packed their 737-800s with more seats, putting them neck-and-neck, or knee-to-knee, with the 160-seat total of their competitors.

Nevertheless, the airlines deny that fitting more people into the same space has resulted in less leg room. How so? They explain that the adoption of a higher density seat back that, at 0.5-inch to 1-inch thick, is three to four inches thinner than the older padded ones, afforded some extra room. They filled the space with more seats (or, in some cases, moved the space up a class or two), but without taking away any actual leg room.

Some passengers would kick at that — that is, if they could get their legs out from under the seat in front of them. They reject such explanations as egregious sophistry designed to justify the discomforts and indignities to which coach dwellers are subjected. It cannot be, they say, that it just looks and feels more crowded but it somehow isn’t. Whatever the arithmetic of population density may be, they insist that three-across just isn’t what it used to be.

The DOT inspector general audit could well be the harbinger of new regulations requiring a better deal for the lower classes in flight. The 2007 report about onboard delays led to landmark tarmac delay regulations, which went into effect in 2010. New rules required airlines to develop customer service plans, contingencies and reporting requirements for long onboard delays. Similar things could happen now.

The airlines know that, and so the mere threat of regulatory intervention will likely inspire them to reform their loyalty programs. We will likely be seeing less of the fine print, and travelers will notice an ease in the crowding — even if it’s only illusory.

And the free market will have its say. Persistent customer complaints, followed up by switches to friendlier skies, will certainly register with the airlines. They will get the message that if they don’t do something about the population density in their coach sections, the people will.

That should also be the answer to the question of democracy at 30,000 feet. Not that the federal government should impose more of its own fine print concerning fairness and democracy — mandating, say, a minimum amount of leg room, seat pitch or seats per cabin — but that air travelers, by exercising their freedom to fly with the airline of their choice, or to fly fewer miles altogether (possibly even rediscovering the train on short trips), will obtain better service.

Besides, there is no constitutional guarantee that all fliers are created equal, endowed by their travel agents with inalienable rights to flight availability, ample leg room and the pursuit of perks in the sky. Those who are willing and able to pay for the perks will continue to get them; those who aren’t, won’t. That, too, is democracy.