There are many reasons for the sorry state of commercial aviation in America. When it comes to your routinely terrible flight — not to mention the sort of exceptional horror that took place aboard United Airlines Flight 3411 last weekend — regulatory failures as well as consolidation, which the authorities have allowed to occur unabated for decades, can be blamed.
People in Silicon Valley pride themselves on their capacity to upend entrenched industries. Uber defeated taxi cartels. Airbnb made getting a room cheaper and more accessible. Streaming services are undoing the cable business. Yet the airline industry has not just stubbornly resisted innovation to improve customer service — in many ways, technology has only fueled the industry’s race to the bottom.
Everything about United Flight 3411 — overselling, underpaying for seats when they are oversold, a cultish refusal to offer immediate contrition, an overall attitude that brutish capitalism is the best that nonelite customers can expect from this fallen world — is baked into the airline industry’s business model. And that business model has been accelerated by tech.
Travel search engines rank airlines based on price rather than friendliness or quality of service. Online check-in, airport kiosks and apps allow airlines to serve customers with fewer and fewer workers. What we are witnessing is the basest, ugliest form of tech-abetted, bottom-seeking capitalism — one concerned with prices and profits above all else, with little regard for quality of service, for friendliness, or even for the dignity of customers.