National Opinions

Cramped seats, long waits, rich airlines

In this May 16, 2016 file photo, a long line of travelers waits for the TSA security check point at O'Hare International airport in Chicago. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has ousted its head of security operations and put new leadership in charge of screening operations at a major international airport, but long checkpoint lines and travel headaches already pervading the busy summer travel season are likely to continue.
In this May 16, 2016 file photo, a long line of travelers waits for the TSA security check point at O'Hare International airport in Chicago. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has ousted its head of security operations and put new leadership in charge of screening operations at a major international airport, but long checkpoint lines and travel headaches already pervading the busy summer travel season are likely to continue. Associated Press

Summer is upon us, and we are facing important travel decisions. Such as who to blame when we get stuck in interminable airport lines.

So many options. There’s the government, but how many times can you can complain about Congress in one lifetime? There’s the public – air traffic up 12 percent since 2011. But really, don’t blame yourself.

Let’s pick a rant that’s good for you, good for me, good for the lines in security: Make the airlines stop charging fees for checked baggage.

The largest airlines charge $25 for the first checked bag, thus encouraging people to drag their belongings through the airport, clogging the X-ray lines and slowing the boarding process.

The idea that travelers should pay extra for, um, having luggage began in 2008, when the cost of fuel went through the roof. But now fuel prices have fallen into the cellar. The airlines are taking in stupendous profits – last year nearly $26 billion after taxes, up from $2.3 billion in 2010.

Yet the baggage fees are still with us. Last year, the nation’s airlines made more than $3.8 billion off what I believe it is fair to call a scam..

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson asked the airlines to “consider possibly” this modest bow to air travel sanity. Two U.S. senators, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, wrote asking the airlines to drop the fees during the high-traffic summer months.

We pause now for the sound of silence.

The airlines have maximized profits by making travel as miserable as possible. Boeing found a way to cram 14 more seats into its largest twin-engine jetliner by reducing the size of the lavatories. Bloomberg quoted a Boeing official as reporting that “the market reaction has been good – really positive.” We presume the market in question does not involve the actual passengers.

But the industry is so powerful that it seems to be able to get away with squishing people into smaller and smaller spaces. Last month, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York offered an amendment to a bill that would have imposed a moratorium on reductions in seat size and space between rows. It failed, 54-42.

Only one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, voted for it. We salute Collins, who has been for years virtually the entire population of the Moderate Republican Caucus.

When Schumer flies, his first move is to empty the seat pocket in front of him. “I take out the magazine and the airsickness bag so I have an extra eighth of an inch,” he said in a phone interview.

When the presidents of three airlines visited Schumer to discuss a totally unrelated issue, he moved the coffee table so it was an inch from their knees. “I said: ‘OK, now you know how it feels.’”

But about the bags.

Rather than reducing the number of bags in security lines, the airlines would like the government to add more workers to screen them. And the perpetually beleaguered Transportation Security Administration is going to spend $34 million to hire more people and pay more overtime this summer. Which, it assured the public, is not really going to solve much of anything.

(Who, you ask, pays for the security lines anyway? For the most part you the taxpayer. Also you the passenger pay a special security fee. Which Congress tends to grab from the TSA for all-purpose deficit reduction. I know, I know.)

A spokesman for Delta Air Lines, which took in more than $875 million on baggage fees last year, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a summer suspension of the baggage fee wouldn’t “really help alleviate a lot.” It would also, he said, require a “considerable change to the business model.”

Heaven forfend we mess with the business model.

New York Times

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