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.
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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.
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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.

34 thoughts on “THE MARK OF QUALITY”

  • So we train pilots like we do doctors? Outrageous hours, ridiculous pay, and all because they're "in training"? When a young doctor works a 48-hour shift, it's possible to kill a person or two if the supervision is awful. But for a pilot, it's possible to kill a few more than that. But at least the bad pilots are weeded out, amirite?

  • All I can tell you is that the cheaper booze is, the better it is. But really, I'm down for cheapness since my overall personal profit requires most extreme frugality. I can understand the relation of value/quality of a product or service to its price, but when you're living in the red, it's a requirement to live cheaply. SOOOOOOOO, I will continue to buy malt liquor.

  • Please make a graph superimposing the Ayn Rand free market porn over the Economies of Size "how you can buy a twelve-seat place setting for $20" chart displaying maximum Liberty (TM) under the strobe light of Rampant Consumerism.

    Then translate it into uber-high-deductible medical insurance, a/k/a "consumer driven health product" (CDHP) — which bears the same relationship to Major Medical as Velveeta does to double-creme Brie.

    But we don't want what we can afford. We want to pay $100/mo. for the world's best medical treatment, and we want to pay $100 for a plane ticket on the world's safest airline. Please, please: encourage people to do math beyond the level of "I want my money for nothing and my chicks for free."

    We don't get things simply because we want them. If we can understand this in terms of air travel, why can't we understand it in terms of laparoscopies?

    (NB: I am in favor of universal health care, but understand the cost.)

  • I had absolutely no idea about any of this. What an eye opener.

    It's been my experience that putting the effort into doing the research and buying higher quality products or services usually saves money in the long run. But that practice doesn't give the same instant, albeit short-lived, gratification.

  • I fly a lot for work, and on some rather funky airlines like Ariana and Biman, but they pale in comparison to my numerous bad experiences on US domestic carriers. I avoid them if at all possible, esp US Air, which wordlessly diverted my LA-DC plane to Philly (their hub) and proceeded to trap us all on the plane for over 3 hours so they could shove us onto school buses and drive us to National Airport at 3am, a terminal which closes around midnight, so no taxis, metro or buses! Genius. But they fulfilled their "contract" with us. Virgin America is my first, and frankly only, choice right now. I fly Virgin Atlantic whenever I can because they are ace. And because they are majority owned by Singapore Airlines, who order new planes, sell them once they are 5-6 years old, the food and service is awesome, the inflight entertainment excellent, and the airline has been voted best airline for something 14 of the last 15 years. Oh, and they have only ever had one fatal air crash, in Taiwan, which I personally think was the control tower's fault. It's hard to explain to non-Americans how bad it is, because the movie/tv version of America is what everyone sees and believes. Including us.

  • I work in the airline industry so I have a lot of knowledge of this sort of thing. I work for a legacy carrier and I have no doubt whatsoever that our business model is the same for the other legacy carriers. I have a real problem with how little training a lot of these regional carriers provide but it makes sense for the almighty bottom line. When I look at how my markets did last month, it's almost always the case that a good deal of the mainline markets (predominately big planes) lost money. However, once I look at the regional carriers we farm out to, it's insane how much money we make on them. You would think that flying from Buffalo to butt fuck Egypt wouldn't make you money, but then you see a 30% margin.

    I have no problem with regional airlines so long as they are safe. Since they're not, I really have to sit down and think as I see my employer increase regional air routes by something ridiculous like 20%. We as Americans cannot admit that there is simply too much fucking capacity in the air right now (competition is good, keep prices low!) and that safety needs to come first, fare prices be damned.

  • Aslan Maskhadov says:

    Look Ed,I usually love your analysis but this time I have to ask is it really such a quandry that people in America like things that are cheap, or a bargain? If you think this is so strange, you should see Moscow, where people are actually proud of getting ripped off for everything. Usually he maxim of "you get what you pay for" is true, but it is far worse to pay much more for the same quality as you might get for a lower price in the US.

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    NPR said:

    Rep. Darrell Issa, the leading Republican on the House investigative panel, accused NHTSA Wednesday of falling down on the job, saying on CBS's The Early Show that he believes the agency was too cozy with the industry it regulated and that NHTSA had "abandoned" safety investigations that should have been further pursued.

    Hm. Lookie there, a Republican saying we need more regulation. Fancy that.

  • I once worked at an aircraft repair station that was so hard up for cheap labor that they were hiring people to do sheetmetal work on airplanes whose only experience with sheetmetal was building travel trailers. Even in this country mechanics at repair stations or depots don't need to be licensed by the FAA, as long as there are some licensed mechanics to sign off the paperwork. Who knows what the rules are and what kind of workers there are at foreign repair stations where more and more of the airline maintenence is done these days.

    With the pilots at the small airlines, they start of getting paid for 80hrs a month. The problem is the only hours that count towards the 80 are 'wheels up to wheels down'. They may be putting in 80hr weeks and only getting in 15-20hrs flying time if they are lucky.

  • The only issue I take with your essay is the insinuation that no one should ever board a plane piloted by an 'inexperienced' pilot. To get your wings you have to pass a lot of tests, check rides and do a serious amount of studying. Regional airlines is where fresh pilots go to get their experience so that they can move up to the big boys with advanced avionics that fly the plane for you. Until we have true autonomous airplanes, pilots will first have to be inexperienced before they can be experienced.

    You know the old joke about the Pilot who has a dog as a co-pilot. The pilot is there to make sure the auto-pilot doesn't screw up. The dog is there to bite the pilot if he disagrees with the auto-pilot.

  • SleezyB says: "..the cheaper booze is, the better it is."

    Well, yeah, but that's only after the first pint or so. Once you can take the clothespin off your nose and still drink it, you're good to go.

    As for the overarching plaint about planes and stuff, (a) I never fly (and have no intention of ever doing so), so in true 'Muricuhn fashion I say "no skin off my nose", and (b) we can always shop at local, more expensive stores in an effort to try to keep money circulating in our local communities (at least until they go out of business). I do that myself, but then I'm a former-Republican-turned-Marxist. I also train anywhere I don't wish to drive to. If God had wanted Man to fly, He would have given us a more powerful JATO system. No matter how many bean burritos I wash down with malt liquor, I can still barely get off the ground for more than a couple of seconds.

  • Crazy for Urban Planning says:

    displaced Capitalist Says:
    February 24th, 2010 at 10:27 am

    "By the way, I take trains everywhere. Sleeper cars are awesome!"

    Where do you live? I miss taking trains everywhere in Bulgaria. I love trains too, but here in the Rocky Mountains Amtrak sucks and doesn't really go anywhere… We need better trains and more routes…

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    Lakeshore Limited, baby! Chicago to Boston and back, 22 hours of fun! (Take into account the 2 hour flight plus 16 hours of getting pissed on in the airport, and Amtrak starts looking like a pretty good deal.)

  • You're forgetting one thing, Ed: Killing yourself and your passengers is bad for business. And since no one but air travel geeks knows (or cares) who really operates the flight, it reflects badly on the mainline airline who contracted out the flight. That being said, regional airlines really are dramatically less safe than mainline carriers, which is why I avoid them when possible, and in the winter I'd be even more cautious. Fortunately I rarely travel other than to major cities, so I have little need for them. My wife and I often visit Fort Wayne, Indiana, but we fly Southwest from Oakland to Midway and drive rather than flying Bumfuck Air. This is probably even less safe than flying in a commuter plane, but we need a car anyway while we're there, and we can fill up on deep dish pizza before we hit the road.

  • Half Astronaut says:

    Tom Waits: The director Jim Jarmusch once told me, "Fast, Cheap, and Good… pick two. If it's fast and cheap, it won't be good. If it's cheap and good, it won't be fast. If it's fast and good, it won't be cheap." Fast, cheap and good… pick two words to live by.

  • Sleezy Bone raises a salient point, given this site's history. Remember that way, waaaaaaay back in the day, when G&T was still a collaborative venture, Ed & Co. offered a detailed analysis of the qualities of different kinds of gin, concluding that price in no way guaranteed quality, and that often the two were in inverse proportion to each other. I daresay a similar argument could be made about tacos. So…yeah. That's not really "ironic," but it's what a fucking moron news reporter would *call* "ironic."

  • 3 things I love about being alive right now:

    1. There is a huge glut of damn good wine going for very cheap prices right now.

    2. Frontline is truly awesome journalism and still free.

    3. I don't ever fly and don't ever need to.

  • I just purchased tickets to visit my family over Memorial Day weekend. Now, granted, I'm leaving at 7am and getting back at midnight, and I purchased my tickets three months in advance, but the fact remains that I will be flying from the east coast to the west coast for $303.

    I am likely to be eaten by a grue.

  • @Aslan Maskhadov
    I don't know what things are like in Moscow, but it's disingenuous to reduce the quality of life in many places in the world (see: deforestation, strip mining, obscene factory conditions, etc) to have a very temporary increase here. But our demand for cheapness is our undoing; companies are forced to outsource, leaving us with no resource but our own buying power. Then when the dust settles we wonder where all the jobs went.

  • Once upon a time a buddy of mine left town to become a pilot for Colgan, which I'd never heard of until then. A few months later he was telling me some rather unbelievable things about his experiences with them. A few months after that he was back home again, having recently quit. What he was telling me just didn't ring entirely true, so I figured that in reality he couldn't quite make it in the big leagues, didn't do so well with not being in charge (he's normally a flight instructor) and made them out to be shockingly incompetent to rationalize it all.

    Then about a month later they dropped a plane on a house, and what started coming out in the news matched up *perfectly* with what he'd been telling me. (And to his credit as an instructor, when the bit about pushing the stick the wrong way during a stall came to light, I was instantly able to understand and explain why it was both wrong and counterintuitive.) Fun fact: on some regional flights the pilots earn less than the senior flight attendant.

  • I like cheap gin and expensive Scotch. Stay away from cheap Scotch.

    I can't get my wife on an airplane. We go from MI to FLA by car, a decision which looks better all the time.


  • Aslan Maskhadov says:

    Jule outsourcing has nothing to do with any one country's obsession with cheapness. The main source of profit in a capitalist system is the exploitation of labor. Beyond that, anything that cuts expenses puts more money in the pocket of the shareholders and owners. It's not like this is some kind of behavior or cultural thing which can be reformed. To do so would bring the economy to ruin.

  • What you are saying here makes me think that America's airline industry acts the same as Nigeria's when it comes to scheduling routes and on their profit making practices. Unfortunately they don't mask what they do over here as well since don't have to.

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