THE MARK OF QUALITY

Posted in Rants on February 24th, 2010 by Ed

When you shop, you automatically associate low price with quality, right? I mean, the least expensive car must be the best one. Those $1.99 dinners on the Long John Silver's commercials…there's no way they could taste like Tucker Carlson's asshole or anything. I bet they're delicious and good for you. The "we keep you legal for less!" insurance companies probably provide red carpet service when you get in an accident. When you get dragged into court you peruse the phone book for the lawyer who promises to take any case for $99, right? When you're looking for someplace to move, you naturally gravitate toward the "low cost of living" in Detroit or Beaumont, Texas. The $150 per course online college must kick Yale's ass all over the place. Cheaper is always better.

In reality, with the occasional pleasant exception cheap usually equals shit. Yet we as a country are obsessed with it. Cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. Who cares what Wal-Mart does to suppliers and who cares what's in the food – just make it cheap. Many of us are forced into this mindset by a lack of resources; the rest of us are simply obsessed with paying less and less so we can buy more and more. This works out well given that the Cato Institute wet dream that has been the last three decades of our economic history – deregulation and privatization as far as the eye can see – serves no purpose but to make everything cheaper, consequences be damned.

I can't strongly enough recommend the most recent Frontline, "Flying Cheap" (full episode online for free; thanks, socialist public television!). My unhealthy interest in the airline industry means that I wasn't entirely unaware of the problems with subcontracting and "regional" carriers, but it is jarring to see the evidence laid out so methodically. If you fly regularly you're familiar with this drill, even though you may not realize it. Scan the fine print on your ticket and you're likely to see "Operated by…" and a name you don't recognize under the name of the airline that sold you the ticket. The major carriers only really operate flights on major routes and, thanks to deregulation and an indifferent FAA, they contract feeder routes out to rinky-dink commuter airlines flying smaller planes and employing inexperienced pilots who make less than the average bus driver.

The crash of Continental 3407 – a flight actually operated by something called "Colgan Air" on contract from Continental – brought some of these problems into the spotlight, but the public's attention span is short and the relationship between the FAA and the industry is a textbook case of regulatory capture. Without regulation, routes are subcontracted under terms that seem designed to cause accidents. Regional carriers are paid a flat fee per route, which encourages corner-cutting on maintenance and labor costs. They are not paid at all unless a route is completed, encouraging a cowboy attitude toward flying in severe weather. Maintenance records are falsified with impunity. Novice pilots are on duty for 16 hour shifts flying planes on which they haven't trained. The crash of Flight 3407, for example, was caused by a pilot who hadn't trained on the Q400 pushing the rudder the wrong way in reaction to a stall. Then the First Officer raised the flaps – during a stall – and sent the plane into the ground. That's what $19,000 per year to work 80 hours per week will get you. It must be a coincidence that the last 8 fatal air accidents in the US were on regional carriers.

I love Frontline because unlike the mainstream media they treat "industry representatives" and lobbyists with the disgust due a class of people with a private section reserved in hell. The soul-crushing part is realizing just how little difference there is between the lobbyists and the people who are supposed to be regulating them. You know, enforcing safety regulations and other inconvenient shit like that. If you watch the episode you'll be treated to the Bush-era FAA chief defending a self-policing policy that allowed airlines to report their own safety violations rather than be inspected by claiming, "Who would know more about the day-to-day safety problems airlines encounter than the airlines themselves?" And thus a Daily Show punchline became the law that was supposed to protect us.

The best part, of course, is that you don't have a choice – only Southwest refuses to use regional feeders, and they have their own maintenance issues – and the industry goes to great lengths to conceal this information. Free Markets may be the gospel of the right, but one of the necessary preconditions, full information, attracts considerably less enthusiasm. Your ticket says Delta or United even though your flight is actually on Pinnacle or Colgan or Two Guys and a Turboprop Air. There is no sign on the plane letting you know that your pilot is 23, has less than 500 hours in the air, has already flown 6 legs that day, and makes about $1200 monthly for his 80 hour weeks. The ticket does not state "We don't get paid unless we take off and land, so we'll pretty much fly you into Hurricane Camille." The captain does not announce on the intercom that the plane has been overloaded with cargo and is probably too heavy to climb. There is no big red X painted on all of the parts that need to be replaced but aren't.

This is what happens when regulatory agencies consider the people who they are supposed regulate to be their clients. This is the logical end result of the laissez faire attitude we have adopted toward…oh, everything. The only surprising thing is that the accident rate is so low.

But gee, look at those low fares.