That’s not going to happen tomorrow or this year, but I wonder if we’re not seeing the end of air travel as we’ve known it. A hundred years, for an industry to build itself, peak and then begin the long glide to disuse and decline.
There’s almost always a disruptor, but the timing has to be right for disruption
And I admit, it put a grin on my face when I read that EasyJet in Europe announced it will now charge their most-valued-customers for putting luggage in the overhead lockers. We’re always most-valued by the airlines as they jam the seats closer together, charge extra for luggage, tag you five bucks for a Coke and no longer hand out a newspaper. And always a reason.
“Whaddya think, we’re made of money?”
The timing is right. Flying is a major pain-in-the-ass unless you’re in Business Class and no one dares go there anymore unless they’re on a company expense account. Covid restrictions have taught business that Zoom is a lot cheaper than face to face. Man, that would really juice the bottom line. First Class is mostly gone now but for international flights of more than a thousand miles.
Four decades of pomp and polish–the fat part of the pie
That covered the forties through seventies and flying then seemed like attending an opening night. We dressed accordingly, in suit and tie, the ladies in their Sunday best. Flight attendants were unrushed, meals served on a tray hand-carried down a spacious aisle and served with smiling courtesy. Drinks were included, snacks when asked for, pillows fluffed, blankets tucked carefully if one felt a chill.
It was relatively expensive, but so were the cross-continent trains and should you cross an ocean it would as likely be by ocean-liner, perhaps one of the Queens. No matter. Transport in those heady times was an experience and well worth the cost. Cost, it seems, is relative to what you expect to pay. A Mercedes today is six times the cost of those times and sales are just fine.
Yeah, really. I understand a general disconnect with this description because presuming you were fifteen by your first flight, you’d now be on social security to have ever-so-briefly travelled before all that disappeared from the common experience. Fortunately (depending upon how you look at it), I am several decades beyond even that, so I can refer to those days from experience rather than research.
Then unfettered capitalism began to take its toll
In 1980, god bless both nations (I always use the small g), England and America elected Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They might have been joined at the hip for the charming ferocity of their politics.
Ronnie’s opening shot across the bow was specifically aimed at the airlines. Two days into his presidency, he answered a traffic-controller strike by firing the entire bunch and hired scabs. That was the first time an American president came down so firmly against the working man and in support of Big-Business. Capitalism won the day with some smooth talk from the communicator and government in America began its decades-long attack on collective bargaining rights for workers.
Union-busting was nothing new in America
Labor unions in America have a long and often violent history, with strikers fighting against scab workers and quasi-military retaliations by the likes of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton’s hired thugs came to national attention when a shooting war broke out between strikers and three hundred Pinkerton agents during the U.S. Steel Homestead Strike of 1892. That day-long gun battle on July 6th left 12 dead and dozens wounded. Carnegie, a lip-serving supporter of worker rights found it convenient to vacation in his native Scotland at the time. When the carnage was over, Carnegie returned and a wave of de-unionization followed. From a high of more than 24,000 members in 1892, union membership sank to less than 8,000 by 1900.
But those numbers paled by comparison to the total number of union members that peaked in 1979 at an estimated 21 million. 14 million remain today, mostly teachers, cops, firemen and postal workers. Unions built the middle class, as well as America’s great corporations.
That may well be, but Ronnie and Maggie both knew who buttered the bread
England had an aristocracy and America a plutocracy. Reagan and Thatcher belonged to neither, but they had ambition and simply glowed in the company of their betters. It’s an age-old tradition that those at the economic top flatter the middle class with entry, at the same time they threaten a decline to poverty.
What capitalism wanted was simple. They wanted more. Millionaires wanted billions and they got them, but the fires that burn for more are never quenched.
What better example than an airline?
The posh airlines of which I’ve written were profitable. But then Reagan got them privatized and private ownership knows what it wants. It wants more. When I first noticed Macadamia nuts had disappeared on United Airlines, I surmised that the Devil might be snuffling behind the door.
Those were the days of Milton Friedman’s Nobel Prize-winning mantra that the sole responsibility of business was to make a profit for owner-stockholders. Capitalists looked in their shaving-mirrors and repeated the mantra, becoming believers.
If the seats were a little narrower, the legroom a tiny bit tighter, the aisles just a smidge reduced in width—think of the return on investment. It made a CEO’s double-chin simply tremble. The possibilities were absolutely pregnant with only a tweak here and a modification there.
They could. Milton Friedman said it was okay. Not only okay, but expected, probably even required.
And so they did.
The trouble with a race to the bottom is, you might win it
And so, as suspense rises at the Capitalism Academy Award, the envelope is ripped open, breath is collectively sucked in and the winner is announced to a collective cheer—XYZ Airlines, with their inspired decision to charge their customers for use of the toilets.
The crowd goes crazy. My god, the audacity. The ability of management to look down the barrel of opportunity and simply squeeze the trigger. The competition now has the script. There’s much nudging and nodding and trembling of middle-aged wattles. They’ve seen the opening box-office returns, world-wide. Next years Academy can expect a flurry of similar productions.
Can stand-up tickets be far behind? Who needs seats?—let them fucking stand.