We are told that this is the era of the empowered consumer: The savvy shopper has oodles of time to browse around, comparing prices among various retailers, perhaps consulting Yelp, Glassdoor or the Better Business Bureau. An almost unlimited menu of choices and information means that anything may be purchased, often at a discount from a warehouse on the other side of the world. Service is king, and business-school professors complain of the “tyranny of the consumer.” Better information means more competition, which means lower prices — all features, of course, of an open marketplace ostensibly presided over by a regulatory authority that, while distant, exists to protect our safety.
This vision is a lie. Air travel is the most concentrated version of an essentially authoritarian experience that can be found throughout today’s economy. We live, work, shop, and travel under a system of grossly asymmetric power relationships, in which consumers sign away most of their rights just by purchasing a ticket and companies deputize themselves to enforce contracts with hired goons. It doesn’t help that the Trump administration is rapidly stripping away as many regulations as it can, promising to repeal two for every new one implemented — an ultra-wealthy administration’s attempt to formalize the plutocratic free-for-all that has followed decades of growing corporate power, defined by massive income inequality, regulatory capture, a revolving door between agencies and the industries they oversee, and steadily eroding consumer rights. The empowered consumer is a figment of our imagination.
Air travel is different from other sectors in degree but not in kind. In a few generations, it has gone from a Tomorrowland-style marvel, accompanied by luxury service, to a series of petty frustrations and humiliations. Like rail travel, which was also once steeped in a certain glamour, it has suffered the effects of a lack of competition and declining investment in public infrastructure. Airlines needlessly demean customers, who are gouged for fees to goose the margins of tottering industry monoliths like United. The process begins when you first shop for your ticket. It is not enough to book passage on a plane. Instead, you are besieged with offers — to book bags, to upgrade, to get more leg room, to gain access to a preflight lounge, to board earlier, to acquire insurance — each of which costs an additional fee. The inducements continue all the way through check-in at the airport and practically until you land at your destination. Any flier who has tried to nap after takeoff knows the exasperation of trying to block out a credit-card ad delivered by airplane public-address system.
This development is part of a larger socioeconomic phenomenon, what the scholar Michael Sandel calls the “skyboxification of American life.” Experiences that used to be standardized are being divided into tiers denoting various rights, access and costs. The result is to both pit consumers against one another — as they compete for a limited pool of guaranteed seats on an airplane, for example — and to extract more money out of better-heeled customers. Those who can pay for early boarding in first class are allowed to, while the rest of us glare at them as we shuffle into our cramped seats in coach, from which we might be booted to make way for an airline employee or a preferred customer. If we violate any of the strictures of the contract we’ve implicitly signed by buying a ticket, then the airline — backed with the imprimatur of state authority, perhaps even with the help of local police — has every right to deny us boarding without apology.
Survey the economic landscape and you’re likely to find similarly scrambled power relationships. During the foreclosure crisis, banks acted like arms of the state, with local sheriffs becoming the banking industry’s eviction force. Health insurers dictate access to health care for millions while a small coterie of chief executives reaps huge payouts. The telecommunications industry has consolidated into a handful of industry behemoths that maintain regional monopolies. The result is a lack of competition and slow, pricey service. And soon, thanks to a provision recently passed into law by Congress, our ISPs will have the rights to sell all of our browsing data to whomever they choose.
That points to a larger problem for today’s consumers: Increasingly we’re not just paying more for less; we are sacrificing our privacy rights in the process, as personal data has become a huge driver of the digital economy. Although companies like Facebook and Google provide us services in exchange for our personal information, the deal is destined to be an unfair one, particularly as companies become more skillful at tracking our habits and subtly manipulating our behaviors. And when we aren’t forking over our privacy, then we may often be losing other rights, sometimes unwittingly. Companies such as General Mills have introduced language into their websites’ terms of service agreements that void a consumer’s right to sue the company if he likes one of their products on Facebook.
Those are the economic costs of this arrangement. The social and cultural costs are harder to define but no less important. As Sandel explains, common experiences become increasingly fragmented and subjected to the vicissitudes of the market: “At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools.” It also means wildly diverging expectations, as traditionally guaranteed rights become more contingent and benefits accrue to the wealthy.
This is why airports and airplanes can feel so tense, suffused with a shared feeling of deep resentment and anger. These places can seem, as some have joked in the wake of the United incident, like tinderboxes before some kind of political revolution. (The near-riot caused after a fake shooter panic at JFK last year serves as a reminder of how easily pandemonium can erupt.) In parceling out benefits only to those who can pay for them, they are dioramas of market dysfunction. But these are the conditions faced by many downwardly mobile consumers. We get what we pay for, which increasingly means whatever a company like United decides.