A cold wind rushes through the cabin as passengers bundle themselves up in whatever thick clothes and blankets they can find. The door has been left open for 30 minutes, and the crew is nowhere to be found.
The hydraulic screech of the long machine that hoists food onto the aircraft irks everyone in earshot, not because of its volume or its pitch, but because the flight was supposed to take off two hours ago.
After waiting over an hour longer than they planned — listening to tired music, gnawing on soggy sandwiches and sipping lukewarm coffee — they sit on an immobile aircraft texting their impatient friends at home, desperate to push back.
The patience of the passengers is tested perpetually.
When the aircraft finally finds its destination, there will be meetings missed, appointments cancelled, loved ones busy.
This is not the tale of a rotten return from spring break, although it is indeed inspired by one. It’s the general story of the sorry state of aviation in America.
In 2014, just 67.7 percent of domestic flights in the United States reached their destinations on time. So far this year, just three-fourths did.
It’s a national embarrassment.
This is the efficiency that we have come to expect of aviation in America — and this is hardly how it works internationally.
Perhaps we expect it because airlines have so normalized delays to the point that they are expected — maybe even planned for. Or perhaps it’s because aircrafts themselves are these enormous machines that transport us through the skies at incomprehensible speeds, so we forgive their inefficiencies.
Mostly, I’d argue, it’s because we have no other choice.
The aviation industry in America is not a capitalist free market, but an oligarchy — efficient for the executives who reap the rewards, but blisteringly painful for the unfortunate passengers whose dollars keep the planes in the sky.
There are now just nine airlines in the United States that offer more than 50 national destinations.
The result is that the airlines have carved out their own monopolized routes, leaving you two choices: Either fly their airline or drive. This is true for the vast majority of domestic flight routes; even in the few routes where several of these airlines compete, customers are typically tied to one airline by frequent-flyer programs and rarely look to the competitors.
The reason that international flights tend to be more timely, comfortable and frequently less expensive is because there are almost always three or more competing airlines; they use their newest aircrafts, charge their most competitive rates and prioritize their departures and arrivals.
Aircrafts for domestic flights can be up to 30-years-old, and the computer systems used for ticketing and maintenance are even older. Crews often don’t know that maintenance is needed until the plane is on the ground, and small computer errors can cause chaos and hundreds of cancelled flights, like in January of this year.
Even if some enterprising young entrepreneurs developed a miracle software that would fix all of these errors, and perhaps even pre-empt maintenance — unless they gave it away for free — they would find few customers.
Because there is no need to compete, there is no need to improve.
The solution, naturally, would be to break up the airlines into smaller companies, forcing them to compete.
“Aren’t you the business-loving libertarian columnist?” I can hear you wondering.
Yes, and that’s why I think this is so important.
The monopolies that have developed in aviation across America have stifled economic productivity and caused countless missed connections — not just to other flights, but to other people. Airlines regularly lie to their customers about departure times, cancellations and hidden fees. They pay their employees poorly and they are always looking for ways to squeeze more money from their customers, because there are no real consequences.
Aviation in America is not so much an industry as it is a racket.
If the current nine major airlines were divided into 40, a market would emerge. Prices would decrease, computer systems would improve and new innovations to reduce delays and cancellations would reshape the skies.
The billions of dollars saved would be great for business, but it would be nothing compared to customers finally feeling that their airline respects their time.
REID JACKSON is a College junior from New York and London studying political science. His email address is email@example.com. “Common Sense” usually appears every other Thursday.
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