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The Quants and the Airlines Versus the Public

Baggage fees are a small part of the misery of American air travel. There’s also connecting flights, which, to paraphrase the Nuremberg judgment, contain within themselves the accumulated evil of the whole. For if air travel were pleasant, who would mind changing planes and spending more time in the system?

Instead, the airlines make us pay to avoid the extra hours — giving airlines an incentive to make air travel less pleasant. But once in a while you can beat the system.

For a memorial service at short notice, I once had to fly with my 2-year-old daughter to New York (and throw away our return flight to Boston). The price of a nonstop, one-way flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Newark, New Jersey: $1200 (for two people).

But what if I flew slightly farther, allegedly changed planes in Newark, but just left the airport? So I went back to airline’s website and asked for a one-way flight to Manchester, New Hampshire. It was only $400 (for two people). Not only did the flight connect in Newark, but the Phoenix–Newark leg was the same flight that cost $1200 nonstop!

This trick works only in limited circumstances. You probably cannot check baggage: It would have looked suspicious to ask for our bags to be checked only to Newark. However, given the baggage fees, this restriction does little harm. The trick also will not improve a round-trip fare: If you don’t fly an intermediate segment, the airlines cancel your remaining segments.

Even so, it sometimes works, at least until an executive reads this post and directs the quants (the operations-research types) to invent new routes and fare rules that deny the public even this small victory.

The ready availability of quants illustrate how it is nonsense to claim that air travel — unlike, say, train travel — is unsubsidized. The quants squeezing the public learned their skills on the public’s dime: through government research grants to professors or directly through graduate scholarships. Graduate training, including operations research, is mostly funded by the public — as almost all science/engineering graduate scholarships are from the government (NSF,DoD, DARPA). There are very few science/engineering graduate students who pay their own tuition, and this is also the case in the private universities.

Furthermore, the public created and nurtured the airline industry through war contracts and by sending postal mail as airmail.

If the United States had taken the path of sensible countries, instead of spending $425 billion (in 2006 dollars) on the interstate highway system, which killed the railroads and brought us suburbs, exurbs, Home Depot, and Walmart, we could have invested in the rail system and still be sending intercity mail by train. First-class mail now takes at least 3 days to cross the continent. Even a slow, 60-mph train would take only two of those days. And, instead of lousy air travel we might have a decent train network.

The word “subsidy” is a term of propaganda. It is best translated as “a public investment that I dislike but see no other way to oppose.”