Flying was once an adventure, more than just a way to get from here to there. But over the years, it has become something to dread. You wait in endless lines for the chance to be poked, patted, X-rayed, interrogated, generally insulted and, in the final indignity, separated by class as you, at last, board. And it can get worse from there. On Sunday security officials at Chicago’s O’Hare airport literally yanked a passenger off a United flight because the airline needed seats for its staff.
That fiasco was captured on videos that set the internet ablaze with outrage, and could end up costing the airline future business. Clueless United dug itself in deeper after the story blew up. Its chief executive, Oscar Munoz, apologized on Monday for having to “re-accommodate these customers” but not for the manhandling of the passenger, a doctor who was bleeding from the mouth in the videos. Mr. Munoz made matters even worse by calling the doctor “disruptive and belligerent” because he had the temerity to object to his removal. Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Munoz saw the light (and the drop in his company’s stock price) and said “no one should ever be mistreated this way.”
United’s mistreatment of the doctor was extreme, but inconveniencing customers is now standard airline operating procedure. This is an oligopolistic industry that has become increasingly callous toward customers as it rakes in billions in profits thanks to strong demand and low oil prices. In recent years, big airlines have squeezed seats in coach closer together, forcing average-size Americans to become intimately familiar with their knees. In addition to checked-bag fees, which have been standard on many airlines for years, more passengers are being required to pay extra for early boarding, more legroom and, in a recent insult, the right to stash bags in overhead bins.
There is no mystery why air travel has gotten so ugly. Four large airlines — American, Southwest, Delta and United — commanded nearly 69 percent of the domestic air-travel market in 2016, up from about 60 percent in 2012, according to government data. Those numbers actually overstate how much competition there is. Many people have only one or two options when they fly because the big airlines have established virtual fortresses at their hub airports. United, American Airlines and three regional airlines affiliated with them served nearly 80 percent of passengers at O’Hare last year.
Disgruntled travelers may howl on Twitter or send furious emails, but airline executives know their bottom lines are for the moment secure. It was not surprising that none of the Big Four made a list of the 10 best airlines in the world that TripAdvisor published on Monday based on passenger reviews. Two smaller companies did — JetBlue (No. 4) and Alaska Airlines (No. 9).
Much of the blame for the increased industry consolidation rests with antitrust officials in the Obama and Bush administrations who greenlighted a series of megamergers between airlines like American and US Airways; United and Continental; and Delta and Northwest. In addition, the Department of Transportation has historically been reluctant to regulate the industries it oversees — an unwillingness that persists in the Trump administration. Just last month, the secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, put on hold a much-needed Obama-era proposal to require airlines to more clearly disclose extra fees for things like baggage. She delayed for a year another rule to require companies to disclose information about the mishandling of wheelchairs and motorized scooters for disabled passengers.
As long as the big airlines face neither rigorous competition nor a diligent government watchdog, they will be able to treat customers like chattel and get away with it.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTOpinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.