Say it ain't so: Feds investigating airlines for colluding to jack up prices, cut services

Who could possibly have seen this one coming? With a series of mergers and bankruptcies filtering the available airline choices in the United States down to essentially four carriers, what could possibly go wrong? If you fly on a regular basis you would be forgiven if you’ve noticed a number of suspiciously “similar” patterns among the airlines left for you to choose from. Prices continue to creep up. New fees are being added. Allowable carry on baggage size limits are going down. Leg room decreases. And most of all, you very rarely get booked on a relatively empty flight with open seats so you can spread out a bit. In fact, it’s more the norm than the exception for the airlines to overbook their flights so people wind up being asked to book a later flight instead. (And if they don’t get any volunteers they’ll just boot somebody off.)

And if they are so busy that the planes are always full, why wouldn’t they add an extra flight? Is it just a coincidence that all four carriers are doing this? Apparently the feds have finally started looking into it.

The Justice Department is investigating whether some of America’s biggest airlines have colluded to keep airfares high, striking at an industry that has posted record profits recently while limiting routes and affordable seats, officials familiar with the matter said Wednesday.

Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce confirmed the probe, saying investigators are looking into “possible unlawful coordination by some airlines,” but she would not name the carriers.

Representatives from Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines confirmed they were among those being investigated and said they were complying with Justice Department requests.

Lawmakers and consumer advocates have routinely called for investigations into whether ­airlines, to boost prices, limit the number of tickets they, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal ­(D-Conn.) recently alleging widespread “anticompetitive, anticonsumer conduct.”

You won’t find many occasions where Blumenthal and I are on the same page but allow me to offer a tip of my hat to the Democrat for at least trying to do something about this. They still have to treat it as allegations at this point, but come on… is there anyone who shares plane space with the rest of us who didn’t already figure that this is exactly what’s been going on? Airline travel is awful and that’s not any sort of exaggeration. Some of you younger readers have, sadly, grown up knowing nothing of air travel but what I described above. It’s just the way of the world for you. But it wasn’t always like that.

There was actually a time when the seats were comfortable and there was room to sit and read a book even if you were a bit more plus sized. You used to get a meal (such as it was) on pretty much every flight that took longer than a tree hopper regional jump flight. And while this may sound like an idea which came straight from an alien planet, your first checked suitcase was usually free and there was plenty of room in the overhead bins and under the seats for a normal, human sized briefcase. Now you’d have to look in a museum to find pictures of anything like that.

Obviously the airlines are colluding, but I’m sure they’re smart enough not to get together in a big, public meeting and do it where the government could see them. There is no competition and they know that they have the public over a barrel. Since there are no other viable options, they will squeeze the last drop of juice out of passengers and try to discomfort you so much that you’ll pay for first class or any extra amenities they can get away with charging you for.

Can the government actually do anything about it at this point? Aside from breaking up the big airlines in some sort of anti-trust suit I highly doubt it. But at least they’re making the effort to look into it, so I suppose that’s better than nothing.