Anatomy of an Airline Debacle

A Southwest passenger in Los Angeles, 2022. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The executives of Southwest Airlines can take comfort in this much at least: It still isn’t a crime to run a business incompetently.

As a wise friend of mine likes to say, “Stupid should hurt.” And while running an airline badly probably shouldn’t be a felony, there is an entirely justified sense that corporate stupidity doesn’t hurt people such as Southwest CEO Bob Jordan nearly as much as it should—and not nearly as much as it hurts his customers. Your kids will never get that Christmas with grandma back, but Bob Jordan will still be rich. Bob Jordan is never going to miss an important meeting or a family holiday because it puts 50 bucks in your pocket.

If it seems that in the great calculus of the airline industry the typical passenger—his plans, his interests, his convenience—doesn’t amount to squat, that’s because in the great calculus of the airline industry the typical passenger doesn’t amount to squat. As I have written before, one of the few good things you can say about the airline industry is that airlines are almost alone in American institutions in being generally honest and transparent about status. And the status of Passenger X is not very high: According to surveys, slightly more than half of all Americans do not fly at all in any given year, and those infrequent fliers are driven almost entirely by price. They consistently tell consumer researchers that they will not pay extra for amenities, that they will not pay more to fly on a preferred airline, that they will not pay more even to avoid being assigned the dreaded middle seat. These are the looky-loos and livestock who gum up the works by flying to Tampa once every other year to visit Aunt Marge. Or the guy who, upon being informed by the TSA goon overseeing the TSAPre line that he didn’t have TSAPre and needed to go to the prole line with the rest of the status-less, started in with, “Tell me about this TSAPre program, maybe I would be interested in signing up”—at 9 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving at DF-by-God-W. These fliers have no loyalty to any airline and they are not very profitable, but there are just scads of them, with nonbusiness fliers making up about 88 percent of passengers.

What this means is that airlines have very little reason to care about any given interaction with a flier who isn’t linked up with its frequent-flier program.

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