Executives of the four airlines that control the U.S. market have been talking a little too freely of late about “capacity discipline” — code for fewer flights, squashed seating and unreasonable fares.
Now the U.S. Justice Department wants to know if executives have illegally colluded to limit their numbers of flights to keep fares high.
The charges will be difficult to prove. Airline officials will claim that the capacity discipline talk is meant to assure shareholders they are doing everything possible to maximize profits.
But the Justice Department’s inquiry validates the near-universal perception that airlines are squeezing out profits by abusing consumers.
Passengers have noticed airline fares didn’t change much even when jet fuel prices dropped by 24 percent last year. If ticket prices have stabilized, as the industry and some analysts contend, new costs for checked baggage and other extras more than make up the difference.
Every flight seems to be booked to capacity. And airlines are making it harder for consumers to comparison shop for fares on the Internet.
It increasingly appears as though the Justice Department was conned when it reluctantly agreed to the merger of American Airlines and US Airways in November 2013.
The two airlines assured regulators that by combining forces they could offer customers better options. But according to one study, passengers actually experienced fewer choices and significantly higher prices on some routes after the merger.
Four airlines — Southwest, American, Delta and United — now control 80 percent of the U.S. market. That’s an unhealthy state of affairs.
Regardless of what comes of the Justice Department inquiry, the eagerness by airline executives to appease investors by pledging to hold down flight capacity demonstrates the low position that consumers occupy on this ladder.
The marketplace and regulators need to encourage more competition from low-cost, start-up carriers.
And the government should consider minimum comfort requirements — seat sizes, for instance — for passengers. The Federal Air Administration budget reauthorization bill, under consideration in Congress now, offers an opportunity to help consumers.
Collusion or not, the U.S. airline industry has succeeded in making flying an expensive, often-miserable experience for the public. Any inquiry aimed at changing that reality is welcome.