Future Tense

How the Biden Administration Can Make Flying More Humane

Two women wearing masks confer in front of a Southwest logo.
Other airlines should follow Southwest’s lead on making flying humane for passengers. Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s “Review of 2019” makes it seem as if the primary goal of commercial flight is to extract as much profit as possible from prospective travelers, noting how, “U.S. airlines are continually updating their successful strategies for capturing additional revenue streams such as charging fees for services that used to be included in airfare (e.g. meal service), charging for services that were not previously available (e.g. premium boarding and fare lock fees), as well as for maximizing fare revenue with more sophisticated revenue management systems.” This pithy review of “revenue streams” is understandable from a strictly pragmatic perspective—but it misses the fact that human passengers actually go to airports, wait in lines, scrunch into cramped seats on airplanes, and get charged for “extras” every step of the way. If you’ve ever felt fleeced by an airline for a questionable final product—whether that’s a “basic economy” seat, cheap headphones, or a late arriving checked bag—you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes it seems like airlines see passengers as fleshy cargo.

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We could talk more about ever shrinking legroom, checked bag fees, or pathetic $10 lunch boxes. But let’s set all that aside and just focus on change fees.

The COVID-19 pandemic jolted the airline industry into walking back exorbitant change fees and cancellation policies that passengers had become numb to—if often infuriated by. These adjustments came as a relief to travelers booking tickets in an unknown future to come, when the virus was sweeping across the planet in irregular if voracious fits and starts.

The novel coronavirus will not be “novel” for much longer, and promising vaccine efficacy results suggest that the frightening spread of the disease may well be nearing its final peak months. But even with this pandemic soon on the wane, there are other risk factors that will likely make air travel a risky endeavor, whether they come in the form of increasingly frequent climate disasters or future viral outbreaks.

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In order for airlines to regain customer loyalty and remain viable over the long term, airlines need to think about what changes they can adopt to make flying not just hygienic and more public-health conscious, but truly humane.

Airlines obviously have to make money to survive, and they often operate on a razor’s edge of profitability. But what if the Biden administration worked with the FAA to require that airlines eliminate change fees for good? Southwest Airlines has already demonstrated impressively over the years how this basic model can build loyalty and be an entirely viable business strategy. As the airline industry adjusts to the new (and still precarious!) normal of a post-COVID world, they might consider adopting a fare program that treats passengers as humans: with limited resources, many on the edge of an economic precipice, and with real world contingencies always in the balance.

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Most airlines are likely itching to reinstate their byzantine change fees and cancellation policies, to begin collecting again $100 here, $250 there, from travelers’ already stretched budgets. The Biden administration could help facilitate a conversation in which the FAA tries to convince airlines to agree to adopting a more generous model of ticketing, giving passengers the minimal generosity of treating them as humans, who may make plans but need to change them. Airlines could hold onto funds but allow travelers to use them at their full value later, much like Southwest’s long-established model.

In an email from April 17, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian assured skittish would-be travelers that because “flexibility is important in uncertain times,” the company would extend change fee waivers to Sept. 30, 2022, “for customers who have upcoming travel booked as of today through Sept. 30, 2020, or have canceled travel from flights in March through Sept. 30, 2020.” This was an admirable gesture, at that point—but why not extend this indefinitely? After all, if we’re honest about it, all times are uncertain. This is a fact of mortal life, and our government and the airlines would do well to acknowledge it. Our globalized, networked, delicate world is not going to get less precarious, but only more so—at least on our present trajectory.

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If carefully coordinated and rolled out in a positive and uniform message, eliminating change fees would be an act of good faith and would increase confidence in our airlines when we need it most. We are likely on the verge of large-scale consolidations, bankruptcies, and mergers, as airlines recover (or not) in the coming years.

Why not think forward, with humanity in mind, and do away with the most annoying detail of air travel: that nagging possibility that one will—gasp!—change their flight? Getting rid of the draconian punishments associated with trip changes could go a long way toward keeping people flying. That is, if we want to keep this grand project of commercial flight going, for the uncertain years to come.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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