Air travel has gotten worse, not better

Airline overbooking and the rude treatment of a passenger have generated much heat in recent weeks, but the real story is the steady deterioration in air travel in recent years to the point that what was once a reasonably enjoyable way to get from place to place has become an ordeal to be endured.

A rare incident of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from a seat he had paid for brought condemnation to the airline and calls for action against the tactics used. United had to get flight crew members to another airport and needed seats that had been sold to paying customers. The airline did many things wrong in that incident, starting with not booking seats for its employees earlier and ending with removing a passenger after he had boarded the plane and claimed his seat.

The airline practice of overbooking planes, which has been commonplace for years, actually helps keep fares down by ensuring that planes seldom fly with empty seats. As a story in Sunday's Mail Tribune reported, the number of passengers "bumped" from oversold flights is very small compared to the total number of passengers.

Still, it's aggravating to plan a trip, book tickets and be told you can't board because the flight is oversold. In many cases, airlines will compensate passengers who get bumped by giving them hotel rooms and vouchers for future flights. As a result of the United incident, it appears that airline and others will be increasing the amount of compensation for passengers who are inconvenienced.

But the drama surrounding passengers getting bumped obscures the quiet suffering of the vast majority who are able to board on schedule, only to endure the indignity of aircraft seats crammed closer together than ever to maximize returns and the annoyance of extra fees for in-flight food, entertainment and checked bags.

Over the years, planes have gotten smaller and more cramped even as ticket prices continued to climb. Airlines that once competed for passengers by offering a better experience — upscale food, complimentary beverages, in-flight movies — instead engaged in a race to the bottom on fares, paring down perks and service to offer the lowest ticket prices.

In a perfect world, customers could vote with their feet and use another airline. But when only four carriers control nearly the entire industry, choices are few.

Congress could take steps to require that airlines treat consumers better, but that doesn't appear likely to happen. In the meantime, what does seem to work — a little — is exposing airlines to public wrath by publicizing their transgressions on social media, prompting them to respond.

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