Saturday, September 23, 2017

33.6 - The little Thing: Airlines ripping off last-minute passengers is emblematic of capitalism

The little Thing: Airlines ripping off last-minute passengers is emblematic of capitalism

Finally for this week, one of our occasional features, this one called The little Thing, where I was struck by something in a story which was being overlooked, not getting the attention or comment it deserved.

We start by noting that as Hurricane Irma approached Florida, there were, not surprisingly, a lot of people trying to leave.

One person, Leigh Dow, was looking for a flight online. Instead of what she expected for last-minute flyers, that is, flights for about $400-500 one way, the prices were running to $1700. When she found a Delta flight on Expedia for over $3200, she got mad enough to tweet about it - a tweet which went viral, sparking outrage and even moving two US Senators (Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey) and Representative Charlie Crist to write letters to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, asking her to look into reports of possible price gouging.

After a lot of harrumphing and fuming and fussing, Delta got Dow a flight for $315, the Expedia price was chalked up to some kind of screwup, some airlines capped their fares out of south Florida, and some others, such as JetBlue, cut their one-way fare to $99.

George Hobica, the founder of, chalked up the increases to standard industry practice and dismissed the notion that the airlines were taking advantage of the emergency, saying "I don't think airlines would be callous or stupid enough to be consciously jacking up fares."

"Sure," he said, "some are high, but last-minute fares are often more expensive in general."

And, in fact, airfare data by Hopper, an airfare search engine, shows that the price hikes that took place the week immediately before the storm were similar to those from two weeks before that.

So all's well and no price gouging, right?

Except for The little Thing, the thing I didn't hear any comment on even though this certainly should have provoked it.

"Last-minute fares are more expensive." Well, of course they are, we all know that, but what does that truly mean?

It means that it is standard operating procedure for airlines to rip off passengers who need to get a flight last-minute for whatever reason. It's standard practice to jack up the price when people are in a take-it-or-leave-it situation.

It has nothing to do with cost: Certainly the incremental cost to the airline of the last passenger to book a flight is no greater than that of the first passenger to do so; in fact having the plane be fuller is to the airline's advantage. There is no economic necessity whatsoever for last-minute fares to be so much more expensive.

Except, that is, for the "necessity" of the logic of capitalism, the "logic" of "maximize profit any way you can," the "necessity" of "get more," and if you can take advantage of someone's situation to do that, then you not only can, by that controlling logic you "must." The fact that last minute walk-up passengers are for the most part business fliers trying to close a deal or make a meeting or whatever and who are working on expense accounts doesn't change any of that.

I've said before that it's not profit itself, it's the love of profit, where profit is made out to be the goal of economic activity, not the means of driving it, the love of profit is the baseline cause behind economic inequality and all the poverty, homelessness, hunger, and the rest that goes along with it. And the fact that airlines so casually taking advantage of last-minute flyers as a normal part of business, the fact that this provokes so little response, is proof of how wound into our psyches that destructive love is.

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