One thing about living in the Bay Area, you have to have a special interest in the state of United Airlines, and things are looking pretty dismal lately. Continental just left them at the altar and their stock price is down in the mud at catfish levels. Of course, there’s plenty of pain in the industry: Alitalia was left at the gate to bleed to death by Air France/KLM, several small carriers just turned up their toes, and the Delta-Northwest merger is far from a sure moneymaker.

The conventional excuse now is oil prices. But I don’t buy it: Apple can make money selling phones and laptops and MP3 players at prices way above the competition because their stuff is really good; the people who run airlines just suck at what they do and sell crappy product: late, ill-designed, overcrowded, uncomfortable, unreliable, and rude. It might seem surprising that a whole industry can be crippled by a broad culture of incompetent management, but the same thing happened to the railroads in the late 19th century, when they were used as financial playing cards rather than transportation resources, and again when passenger service was trashed because ‘real railroad people’ just didn’t want to bother carrying freight that couldn’t be lost on a siding for a week or left in the sun or the cold when convenient. Maybe all those years under regulation ruined the executive tradition of airlines, maybe something else is going on.

The product line, for example, is incoherent and pricing is silly. Economy class seating is down to about a 31″ pitch everywhere except on JetBlue and United’s premier section: anyone from average height up simply hates this, especially as flights are nearly full all the time. Business class seating is way more than adequate for a long flight, but costs ten times as much, a price that should get you three whole three-seat rows in steerage. Why isn’t there a seating class in between blood-clot and too-plush, and priced accordingly?

American ripped out its extra-space seats, presumably because they didn’t think people were willing to pay for them, but have you ever made a reservation and been shown the size of the seat on offer – how could they tell? United, after years of misusing the product, has started to sell premier seats as upgrades for cash instead of only giving them away to frequent flyers, but they’re pricing them much too low. The right way to do this is to offer premier seating (35″ pitch) for, say, a flat 15% premium on whatever the ticket cost. Consider: every six passengers who take this deal pay for one additional ticket…but this ticket is a gold mine. It requires no serving of drinks, no handling of paper or boarding time or head-patting at the checkin counter. The imaginary passenger checks no bags and weighs nothing…in fact, his seat also weighs nothing, and weight is what airlines pay to carry.

Speaking of weight, what took them so long to start charging for second bags? Is there some moral principle that says people who travel light should pay to haul the luggage of people who choose to schlep golf clubs and every piece of clothing they own? And why are they so bad at actually handling the bags they check? Forty minutes from landing to delivery is common at Oakland, a small airport with a short bag-haul distance; not to mention the number of bags they lose or delay.

Then there are little expensive habits that seem to come from being afraid of their customers instead of confident that they offer a good product. These are important because they suggest a lot of other bad operations management that we can’t see. Gate time is a meter running with no revenue for a big piece of capital equipment: what idiot had the idea that airplanes should be filled from front to back through a door at the front? The frequent flyers, who all have seats in front, board first and clog the aisle for everyone else, at least a ten-minute hit on every two operations. I know, those favored customers have big carryons and this assures them first crack at the overhead storage, but this is a very expensive (and infuriating) way to be nice to them, and of course the shrinking seat pitch makes the overhead storage more and more desirable and more and more scarce per seat. Why not just reserve a couple of extra bins for them and load rationally? Why not be serious about carryon rules and explain why?

The underlying principle of airline management for the last decade or so has the general flavor of cost-cutting, especially by understaffing, and chiseling. The first embarks on a downward spiral, because people who have been kept waiting in line, expected to check in with a stupid machine, and treated like a problem to be moved along rather an a chance to deliver value, become surly and resentful, making the experience of all the front-line employees worse and worse. This is especially important at the counters dedicated to people with a problem, but every time I walk past the “service desk” at O’Hare there’s a line fifteen people long. This is pretty close to a slap in the face: “We know you’re here because we did something wrong or treated you badly, and yet we will staff this counter to show you that we think our time is much more valuable to us than yours is to you!” Phone queues, ditto.

Why aggravate the effect of the security check?

And what’s with the $5 for those sample boxes of noshes: aren’t the people who make the bags and cans of stuff in them giving them away for the publicity value (or close to it)? I don’t think an airline trip entitles me to a hot meal at my seat; I’m astonished at what good food they can provide in business and, thanks to an occasional bump-up, in first, but I’d be happy to pack a bag lunch and some peanuts for a transcontinental flight assuming the ticket price reflects the saving. Charging five bucks for a marketing gimmick, though, ruins an otherwise good idea by flavoring it with a big dollop of cupidity and stinginess.

The American automobile company managers almost flushed themselves by running their companies for the least possible learning and short-term discomfort. I think the airlines are the victims of managers who broadly, pervasively, and internationally don’t get it or don’t care; they must be pooling their stupidity out on the golf course together. I just wish I didn’t have to do business with them.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.