Airline Consolidation: Just Like the Banks?

A friend shared an article that included a variation of this diagram about bank consolidation.
Notice the pattern: banks consolidated from 37 in 1994, to 19 in 2001, to 11 in 2005, and to only 4 in 2009. Banks became less accountable and more inclined to gouge customers for absurdly high ‘fees’ (e.g., stuff like $31 for each ‘overdraft’ debit card usage, even for $1 or $5 purchases … they offered so many conveniences, but not the easy service of automatically alerting customers and rejecting the debit request at the point of sale). The greed-driven policies at the consolidated banks eventually created a financial meltdown. They were labeled ‘too big to fail’, so as to justify the enormous bailout by federal officials, using public funds. Our public funds, used to reward the overpaid bank greedsters.

It struck me that the diagram looks just like what has happened with U.S. airlines, where today the vast majority of passengers are ‘served’ by only six airlines and the so-called ‘regional’ feeders they contract with. Our final six are American, Delta, Southwest, United, Alaska and JetBlue.

If there is one big trend that we can all agree is happening in the U.S. and across the planet, it is industry consolidation and globalization. The gap between big and small, and the fraction controlled by big, just keeps growing. We now have fewer (but larger) banks, grocers, hospitals and immediate-care chains, gas stations, telecom providers, etc. It is also reflected in the widening wealth gap between the 1% and the 99% … and, again, not just in the U.S., but also in corrupt banana republics and across the globe.

We only hope that this trend is not driven by corruption even in nations like the U.S. We only hope that, if in fact this trend is as unsustainable as it appears to be, the ‘market correction’ will be peaceful and not too painful. Are we becoming the biggest Banana Republic in the history of the world? We only hope not.

Yesterday’s SkyJustice Phone Conference

The featured speaker at the 9/29/2018 Sky Justice National Network monthly phone conference was Jim Spensley. Airline and airport consolidation was front and center. A few of the many interesting points discussed included:

  1. The ‘final-6’ airlines are consolidating their schedules into fewer (but larger) hubs; i.e., while a few airports are seeing growth in annual operations counts, most airports have declined substantially for decades now. [for data, see the aiREFORM analysis at this 1/17/2018 Post (1990 vs 2005 vs 2016 Operations: Exposing FAA’s Inaccurate Forecasts), and see also this 10/23/2017 aiREFORM Post (NAS Annual Ops Have Declined for Decades Now, And NextGen Is Just Hype)]
  2. Most commercial service airports within the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) offer monopoly or near-monopoly service; i.e., the predominant pattern is either only one airline offers direct service between two airports, or one airline has strong dominance on that airport-pair. This pattern appears to be an antitrust collusion between airlines; it also appears that federal regulators, including DoT, DoJ and FAA, are willingly not acting to end this antitrust collusion. [see this 2014 aiREFORM analysis (A Table Showing the ASPM-77 Airports – (Peak Years, Traffic Declines, and Trends Toward Airline Monopolies)]
  3. While the general public assumes there is an economy of scale that lowers unit costs and thus causes ticket prices to go down at larger hub airports, the opposite appears to be happening. Two key reasons are:
    1. the monopoly power held by the hub-dominant airline enables them to get away with setting much higher prices; this is especially true on those feeder routes to/from cities served by no other airlines.
    2. the airport authority accumulates an enormous debt burden for massive airport infrastructure expansion, all of which is predicated on continued unsustainable growth rates. In other words, a balloon is inflated, catalyzed by FAA grant funding and laws that incentivize hub concentration, and the balloon becomes primed to burst. The sudden popping of an airport hub balloon can be triggered by a general economic downturn, or it can happen if/when the hub-dominant airline arbitrarily decides to move to another airport; a prime example is the former Delta hub near Cincinnati [KCVG].
  4. There are other, environmental costs associated with these consolidated hubs, borne by residents and other ‘non-airport stakeholders’, but both FAA and airport authorities work hard to ignore and even deny these costs. The consolidation of flights into fewer but larger hubs causes more noise impacts (both persistent and repetitive noise patterns), more air pollution (thus more health costs), more destruction of residential neighborhoods and communities due to ‘land-grabbing’ by the airport authority, etc.
  5. One of Jim’s key points was that the airport authority has considerable power to set policies, to choose to NOT expand excessively … but the airport authorities tend to be beholden to the airlines, especially the hub-dominant airline. Why would someone like the Port of Seattle, PANYNJ, or Massport be so subservient to the hub-dominent airlines? It all comes down to money, needed to expand plans (and annual bonuses, in some cases), and also needed to pay off past and future development debt. The fear of an abrupt airline departure – like Delta did at KCVG, American did at KSTL, and United is now doing at KCLE – creates a peonage, rendered on a massive scale.

Solutions?

So, who can solve the growing impact problems caused by airline consolidation and hub concentration? If both FAA and airport authorities are effectively captured, serving industry, we can expect they will continue to play a good-cop-bad-cop game, passing citizens back-and-forth to each other while offering no answers and no solutions. This is where we are today. It is why we depend even more on our elected officials. Especially in Congress, we need them to change the laws; take back what was taken from the people in the 1990 passage of ANCA [see this 6/9/2015 aiREFORM Post (Wendell Ford’s Edsel: Many of FAA’s NextGen Dirty Tricks were Also Used in the 1990 Passage of ANCA)]; restore local control, to include ensuring local residents have power over their airport authority; even, impose a steep carbon tax on aviation fuel, so that excessive airline hubbing is disincentivized.


See also:

Who is to Blame – and Who Can Fix – the Impacts Around U.S. Hub Airports?