Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. Before we get to the final episode in our series about airline travel, I want to ask for your help on another series we’re working on. It’s about something we all experience, but we don’t like to discuss. It’s a series on failure. Failure is embarrassing; it’s painful; it can even be life-threatening. But: we need to talk about it. Because there is a lot to be learned from failure. And when failures are hidden away, as they usually are, that learning can’t happen. This is where you come in. We are looking for fascinating stories of failure. Maybe it’s something you were involved in first-hand; maybe it’s something you read about, and it just stuck with you. It could be a failure in politics or war or business; it could be a failed relationship, or some other personal failure; maybe it’s a failure in sports or the arts, a failure of invention or exploration. If you have something — anything — that could help, we’d love to hear about it. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; with the subject line: failure! With your help, maybe our series on failure will succeed. So, thanks.
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Maria DIPLOUDIS: I’m very excited about traveling. I have always loved planes and airports and waking up at 3 a.m. to take a cab when everyone else is sleeping. I frequently volunteer to drive my friends to airports just because being near an airport makes me really excited.
Maria Diploudis is one of the Freakonomics Radio listeners who sent in an audio diary for this series we’ve been doing on airline travel. She has been excited about flying for a long time.
DIPLOUDIS: I remember as a kid loving everything about air travel. And even now, I’m pretty hard-pressed to think of anything that I don’t like about it.
She does have her preferences.
DIPLOUDIS: I really, really try to avoid being stuck in a middle seat because I have a pretty big butt, so it gets a little awkward if I’m stuffed between two people.
Diploudis lives in San Francisco.
DIPLOUDIS: And I will be flying to the Greek island Chios to see my uncle who lives on that island. He has cancer, and things aren’t going so well with his health. I will also be seeing other family. It’s been about 15 years since I’ve been back, so there’s a lot of catching up to do, and there’s going to be a lot of me having to answer the question of why I’m almost 40 and still single. I will be flying alone. In general, I prefer to travel alone because I can be a pretty whimsical person. So I like the freedom to be able to do whatever I feel like doing in the moment. I try to fly as cheaply as possible because I studied theater and social work, so I’m poor — but I did it to myself. I basically got on Expedia and tried to find the cheapest airfare. I got a one-way ticket, which is something that I can do because I have dual citizenship between Greece and the U.S. And the ticket costs a little over $700, which I think is a pretty good deal.
How good of a deal is it? Think of all the other things you could buy with $700. On the other hand, what would it cost you to get to Greece without a plane ticket? How would you even do that? Today on Freakonomics Radio, the third and final episode in our series on airline travel. In part 1, we discussed the headaches and benefits of flying. In part 2, we heard about the remarkable safety record of modern aviation. And today, we’re talking about the price of air travel. Obvious things, like ticket prices — but also environmental costs:
Greg FORAN: The only solutions are either you don’t fly, or you use sustainable aviation fuel.
Also: would you rather own an airline or an airport?
Ed BASTIAN: An airport.
DUBNER: Because why?
BASTIAN: Because they’re a monopoly.
And: what is Maria Diploudis seeing on her journey?
DIPLOUDIS: I think every airport has to have a Cinnabon, I think there’s some sort of international law.
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If you’ve already heard the first two episodes in this series, you know we spent some time in Atlanta, at the headquarters of Delta Air Lines, which is one of the world’s largest airlines by revenue. We did some safety training, we wrangled baggage, we watched the intricate choreography that goes into getting a plane ready for takeoff — and we spent a little time with Delta’s C.E.O., Ed Bastian.
BASTIAN: Good to see you, welcome.
DUBNER: Great to meet you. Thanks for having me.
BASTIAN: This is our founders’ office. It’s where a lot of the magic of Delta gets decided.
DUBNER: You have amazing mementos.
BASTIAN: We got Olympic torches in here. We’ve got Yankee Stadium memorabilia. This is probably my favorite, the Delta thank you plane. You know, thank you to our people and our customers for being the very best.
DUBNER: What do I have to do to get one? I have to fly a million miles?
BASTIAN: No, no. You just have to know me. We can get you one.
After reporting out the first two episodes in this series, I had come to understand — oh, I did not get a thank-you plane, just so you know — but by now I had come to understand that a commercial airline is an extraordinarily complex business to run, and I asked Ed Bastian to name the most difficult part.
BASTIAN: I’d say the most difficult part is dealing with our political leaders. We’re a divided country, as you know. And, you know, we’re in a business where we want everyone to love us. And it’s a real challenge at times, too, to be able to navigate and make certain that you’re putting your people and your company first when others want you to run in different direction.
DUBNER: And what’s the relationship between a big firm like yourselves and the federal government?
BASTIAN: Well, it’s fairly extensive. They are a regulator. The F.A.A. regulates our industry. On the political side, it’s where it gets more challenging. First of all, quite a few members on the Hill know Delta. They take Delta. So they all have a point of view on the brand and the service. But at times they may have different views on issues. And you’ve got to be careful not to turn into a political actor here.
DUBNER: Can you give me an example — what kind of change they might want?
BASTIAN: Well, I think they’re always looking for advocacy on their, their issues — whether it’s societal issues, sustainability, environmental, corporate-governance issues. And you want to always stay above the fray in that.
DUBNER: I’ve read, Ed, that you were 25 before you boarded your first airplane. Is that true?
BASTIAN: That’s true.
DUBNER: And you’re how old now?
BASTIAN: I’m 65. Forty years ago.
DUBNER: So for someone who’s 25 today and has flown dozens, maybe hundreds of times, can you explain the difference between access to airline travel now versus then?
BASTIAN: Well, back then, air travel was very much seen as a luxury, as a service that only the rich could afford, did not have a lot of routes, the pricing was controlled by the government. The number of travelers as a result were quite few, and planes were generally only about 50 percent full. And around that time — in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s — the Deregulation Act occurred in our industry that allowed airlines to take a lot more control over pricing, which created a lot more competition, a lot more growth, brought fares way, way down.
The Airline Deregulation Act was signed into law in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. Until then, there was a federal agency that determined how much you would pay for a plane ticket.
Severin BORENSTEIN: I worked at the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1978, during airline deregulation.
That is Severin Borenstein. Today, he’s an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
BORENSTEIN: The Civil Aeronautics Board designated certain airlines to fly on certain routes, and then they would set a price that was intended to be high enough for the airline to recover their costs. After decades of regulating prices, we were going to open all that up.
When Maria Diploudis was telling us about her trip to Greece, you may remember she said she basically got on Expedia to find the cheapest ticket. It turns out that’s pretty typical: 83 percent of U.S. air travelers say that price is among their top priorities. Back when the industry was regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board, or C.A.B., airlines were not allowed to lower prices to win customers. So they had to find other ways to compete.
BORENSTEIN: They would compete against each other by adding more flights on the route. Since you couldn’t cut the price, what you would do is say, “We have the most flights.” And that really mattered to business travelers who wanted to be able to, if their meeting ended early, to go to the airport and quickly catch a flight home. So they were competing on frequency, and in other ways in service quality, by offering piano lounges on 747s. And they were gradually driving down the share of seats that were filled by adding more and more flights. And they would eventually get back to the point that they weren’t earning a great rate of return on their investment. So they’d go back to the C.A.B. and they’d say, “We need higher fares.” And the C.A.B. would say, “Yeah, okay, we’ll give you higher fares.” Eventually, in the mid-1970s, people at the C.A.B. figured out that this was just an endless loop, where we were raising fares, and the planes were getting more and more empty, and this was very inefficient. That’s where we had gotten to — pretty empty planes with very high prices.
This system was okay for the airlines, who were essentially guaranteed a profit by the regulators. And it was okay for travelers who cared more about flexibility than price, like business travelers. But for everyone else? It wasn’t so good. Deregulation changed that.
BORENSTEIN: The airlines figured out that most people would rather have a fuller flight, even if it was a little less comfortable, in order to have much lower fares.
The fares did get much lower. The average price today for a domestic round-trip ticket is less than half of what it used to be, once you adjust for inflation. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from economics, it’s that life is all about the trade-offs. A cheap flight is not going to be the most comfortable few hours you’ve ever spent. The seat will be narrow. There may not be good food, or any food. And if your flight gets delayed or canceled and you need to get on the phone with a customer-service agent? Yeah, well, let’s hope you don’t. But! The airplane will get you to where you want to go — someplace that, a few decades ago, you may not have even thought about going. Multiply your one trip by a few million, a few billion, and that is where we are now: air travel has become part of our global infrastructure.
Megan RYERSON: Aviation is such a powerful force in our lives — communication, experiencing other cultures, traveling to see family. There’s so much power in making aviation accessible.
That is Megan Ryerson from the University of Pennsylvania.
RYERSON: If we had airlines that just operated a few flights or if we had a system with just a few airports, we would have a completely different global economy.
But Ryerson is not an economist; she is a transportation scholar who sees herself as more of a consumer advocate.
RYERSON: An economist, for example, might look at this from the perspective of the airlines. How can they maximize profits? I am totally focused on the consumer and their mobility. How can we optimize mobility? How can we optimize accessibility to air transportation and transportation broadly?
DUBNER: So the conventional wisdom at the moment, at least, seems to be that airline travel is chaotic and unpleasant and unpredictable and too expensive even. But you could look at all that from a different perspective and say that airline travel is a miracle of engineering and logistics and economics, and that for pennies a mile, it’s much cheaper than auto travel, even rail travel in a lot of cases. And I get from point A to point B really fast. Also, my risk of dying is much less when traveling by airplane than by car, certainly over the equivalent distance. So if those are the two ends of the spectrum of how we see air travel, where do you land on that spectrum?
RYERSON: Oh, you want me to pick a point? I was going to say, Stephen, you’re in my head. Those are the two areas where I live. I respect how incredibly expensive and complex it is just to get an aircraft off the ground. However, I think that it’s human nature, it’s in our spirit, to always want better. I think the aviation system is definitely a work in progress and can improve significantly.
Before deregulation, only about half of all Americans had ever been on an airplane. Today, that number is 90 percent. Ed Bastian again, from Delta:
BASTIAN: We know it’s one of the top economic drivers in our country. Our country is so large. It’s allowed families to spread out, to live in different parts of the country without feeling like they’ve left home for good. It brings people together. I think the impact that travel has was never more obvious when it was taken away over these last couple of years by the pandemic. The high level of anxiety and angst and distrust that we witnessed, some of which clearly was due to the disease, but I think another big part of it was due to the fact that people weren’t able to be together. And on an international scale.
DUBNER: Considering this industry is so vital, why does it have such a thin profit margin?
BASTIAN: Well, it’s highly competitive. We have a lot of airlines in our country and in our world, and we all operate on marginal economics. When that plane takes off — the last chance you have to sell that seat is 10 minutes before the door closes. So there’s an automatic spoilage that occurs — unlike maybe many goods, that you can put on a shelf and wait ‘til get your price, we don’t have that luxury. It’s an industry that’s highly technical. We have 90,000 people, but the majority of those perform responsibilities that require a significant amount of skill and training and expertise. And as a result, it has high labor costs. The planes are very expensive, ranging from $50 to $200 million apiece. The principal way in which we propel our planes is fuel — jet fuel. And it’s the most expensive type of fuel in the energy-commodity space. On the one hand, the cost structure, the capital that’s required is high. However, the revenue environment changes by the hour. You put that mix together — it’s what keeps people like me engaged here, because it’s like a Rubik’s cube that you’re always trying to solve for.
Delta, like many other airlines, has nearly recovered from the pandemic drop in travel. Last year, they recorded a pre-tax income of $2.7 billion on operating revenue of around $45 billion. Their single-biggest cost is labor — and they recently gave their pilots a big raise, and an across-the-board raise for all other employees. After wages, their second-biggest cost is jet fuel.
BORENSTEIN: And fuel costs are incredibly volatile.
That’s the economist Severin Borenstein.
BORENSTEIN: People often quote numbers of the share of total costs that are fuel, and they’re always wrong. Because sometimes they can be as low as 10 percent of the cost of the airline, and sometimes they can be as high as 50 percent.
And what does Ed Bastian say about Delta’s fuel costs?
BASTIAN: On average, fuel prices fluctuate to, say, between 15 to 30 percent of our cost base.
Delta spent $8.5 billion on fuel in 2019, the year before Covid. Last year, they spent more than $11 billion.
BASTIAN: We used to hedge — financially hedge — fuel, trying to level out. But when you have a commodity that’s as volatile as fuel and you hedge on a longer-term basis, it’s very expensive. We’ve lost in our business a lot of money hedging fuel. The one thing that we have done differently is, ten years ago, we bought our own oil refinery, which is outside of Philadelphia. Because it’s not just the cost of the crude, it’s the cost of the crack — the refining process that you turn crude into jet fuel. And that crack currently runs anywhere from $50 to $75 a barrel on top of the $100 a barrel that you’re seeing on the crude market. By owning a refinery, we’re able to save the cost of that crack and actually just pay and eliminate the middlemen, or the market impact, and just incur the cost of the real production. So this year, that refinery will probably save us $8 to $900 million, as compared to an airline that’s paying for the market price.
DUBNER: I remember reading about that way back when, and I thought, “Well, if this is successful, the other airlines will do it.” It sounds like it has been successful. And yet, the other American airlines have not done that. Why?
BASTIAN: Well, it’s complicated. You know, running a big refinery is almost as complicated as running a big airline. You have to have another set of skills. The second impact is that because we’re in there doing it, and ensuring that the supply of jet fuel stays high — because the other incentive we had was particularly in New York, with all the growth we’ve had in New York, prices were particularly high because refineries were being closed along the, the East Coast. Just Delta going in and turning — because it was a closed refinery — when we turned it back on, we immediately dropped the cost of jet fuel in the New York marketplace by 50 percent.
BASTIAN: So the other airlines are getting a benefit from Delta’s involvement. I’m still waiting for those thank-you notes.
The dollar cost of jet fuel is one thing. There’s also the environmental cost of burning all that fuel.
Greg FORAN: We represent 3 to 4 percent of global emissions.
That’s Greg Foran, the C.E.O. of Air New Zealand.
FORAN: I think sustainability is probably the most wicked problem that we have to solve.
A “wicked problem” is management-speak for something that seems nearly impossible to solve — because of its complexity, and competing interests. The good news is that big airplanes have become much more fuel-efficient. Here’s the economist Volodymyr Bilotkach, author of a book called The Economics of Airlines.
Volodymyr BILOTKACH: By some estimates, each new generation of jet engines has been about 20 percent more fuel-efficient than the previous generation. One thing that has been happening in the field of aircraft manufacturing is that the aircraft are becoming lighter thanks to use of composite materials, as opposed to the aluminum or aluminum. I’ve never learned how to pronounce that correctly.
Indeed: new aircraft are around 85 percent more fuel-efficient than new planes from the 1960s. The bad news is that there’s a lot more flying today than there was in the 1960s. So, as Greg Foran pointed out, airline travel adds up to 3 or 4 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. He says that hybrid and electric planes could come online relatively soon, at least for shorter routes. Here’s what Ed Bastian from Delta told us:
BASTIAN: We made an investment in a company called Joby recently. Joby is a EVTOL operator. It’s an electric vehicle takeoff operator — vertical takeoff lift. And what they are — they’re small planes. They’ll sit somewhere between four and six people. There’ll be vertiports in different neighborhoods and geographies around large metropolitan areas. Initially, there will be a pilot on that plane, but over time, it could very well be autonomous. And fly it to anywhere — 30, 50 miles, wherever that route is going.
But, again — those are small, short-haul flights. Here’s Greg Foran:
FORAN: And that’s going to be good, but it’s really only going to deal with 12 or 15 percent of our global emissions, because far and away, the most emissions that we create occur with our long-haul flying.
On long routes, the options are more limited.
FORAN: Really the only solutions there are — either you don’t fly, or you use sustainable aviation fuel.
Sustainable fuels are typically made from biomass and waste sources, and they release up to 80 percent fewer emissions than traditional fuel.
FORAN: And one of the challenges with sustainable aviation fuel is that demand exceeds supply, and the price is three to four times the price of fossil fuels. So if the cost of fuel goes up by 300 percent — what does that do to demand for air travel?
Yeah, what would that do to demand? And what would it do to ticket prices? We’ve all been accustomed, for a long time now, to cheap fossil fuels. And for a few decades, we’ve been accustomed to cheap air travel. Coming up: how, exactly, do airlines make their money? And: when airlines merge — which they do, all the time — is that good or bad for customers?
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Let’s go back to the time just before Covid stopped everything, including most airline travel. Here’s Sara Nelson, a flight attendant for United Airlines and president of the world’s biggest flight-attendant union.
NELSON: Just a month earlier, Delta was celebrating major profits and handing out profit-sharing checks. The American C.E.O. was saying, “We’re never going to lose money again.” United Airlines had just announced a huge training facility. And then a month later, they’re going with hat in hand to Congress and saying, “We’re not going to make it,” because 90 percent of demand dropped off.
And Congress said yes. Here’s Ed Bastian, the C.E.O. of Delta Air Lines.
BASTIAN: Over a series of, I think three tranches, it was about an 18-month period, the industry received in total around $50 billion. Delta received around $10 billion. It was allocated based on size of the airline, the payrolls of the airlines. And all airlines participated in it.
DUBNER: A lot of people might say, “Well, I had a really tough time too during Covid — financially, and other ways. And I wasn’t getting bailed out. It just doesn’t seem fair.” How do you answer that?
BASTIAN: There were a number of reasons why the bailouts were critical. One, the industry would not have been able to survive what happened during the pandemic. We had large-scale operations on a global basis that were, by law, shut down. You know, the international skies were closed. We were not legally allowed to fly to many of our major markets around the world, which was a government action. You know, a responsible action. But it wasn’t something that Delta did, or any airline did. Secondly, the airways, however, in the U.S. needed to stay open. Even if customers weren’t flying, because we needed medical workers and supplies to get around our large country. And air travel is a critical part of commerce as well as society. We could not have flown unless the government was willing to support us but also, in turn for receiving the bailout money, as it’s been called — I don’t think about it, I think as a subsidy for Covid — we agreed to keep the airways open, and to lose lots and lots of money. Third, all of that money went to our employees. It didn’t go to the airlines. It went to maintain our employees, so we didn’t have to furlough any employees. Which meant they were positioned when the market reopened. Could you imagine the spring of this year when people decided they were going to travel, if we hadn’t supported the airlines? It would have been a disaster. You’d have airlines in bankruptcy. You would have had planes other places — very much, by the way, what you see around the world, international markets. If you want to see what the U.S. airline industry would look like? Go look at Europe this summer and the difficulty of getting staff in, and the long lines and the lost baggage. I’m proud of our administration for standing by and doing the responsible thing. And by the way, we have to pay back 30 percent of that. And the government also took warrants in the ownership stakes of the airlines in return for it. So the government got a good return on its investment, including the payroll taxes and the other forms of support that our employees pay back to the government, which they wouldn’t have otherwise paid had they been laid off.
Delta and the other big U.S. airlines are publicly traded firms whose relationship with the government can be … let’s call it “complicated.” In many other countries, there are so-called flag carriers that are owned by the government — the Gulf States are a good example. U.S. airlines like Delta have complained that this puts them at an unfair disadvantage: it’s hard to compete in the international market against companies whose government buys the planes and sets ticket prices low in order to promote the country itself.
BORENSTEIN: Well, every airline has always complained about foreign carriers, and said that they’re subsidized.
That, again, is the Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein.
BORENSTEIN: The foreign carriers could certainly point to what happened during Covid and the huge bailout that the airline industry got and say, “Wait a second, you’re subsidizing your airlines as well.”
NEELEMAN: Yeah, it’s legitimate. But, Azul has to compete against American and Delta. And we got zero money from the Brazilian government, and they got $20 billion from the U.S. government. So, it’s just one of those facts of life. And Delta makes a lot of money international, but I’m sure they make more domestically. It’s just kind of part of the big pot of soup we all have to deal with every day.
DUBNER: So David, from what I can tell, the airline industry is just hard. It’s complicated. It requires a big and expensive network. You also have to engage intimately with the people using that network, unlike industries like telecom or oil and gas. So how would you say the airline industry is different from others, and what are some of the key difficulties?
NEELEMAN: Yeah, the difficulty is, it’s capital-intensive, it’s human- intensive, so you have a lot of expensive assets — billions of dollars of assets. You’re subject to pandemics, to recessions. The first thing people do is they buy food, and they get shelter — they don’t think about going to Florida. That’s something when you have leftover money. High fuel prices are — you have a budget, and all of a sudden, you have some kind of world shock, or you have a war that breaks out, and your costs just went up $75 million for the year. And you’re like, “okay, we need to raise our fares,” but you can only recapture so much. So you can make a lot, and you can lose a lot. Warren Buffett said, “The best way to make $1 million in the airline business is to start with $1 billion.”
At least Warren Buffett may have said that. He is famously sour on the airline industry. It may have also been Richard Branson who said it — and he did start an airline. In any case, there’s no doubt that running an airline is complicated and expensive. The economist Severin Borenstein is, on the one hand, sympathetic.
BORENSTEIN: Airlines face incredibly volatile demand, and they have huge fixed costs. So when you put those factors together, this is going to be a very boom-and-bust industry. I think there’s just no way around that.
But, Borenstein says, the airlines’ relationship with the government provides a big safety net.
BORENSTEIN: These airlines are very pro-markets, right up to the point until the markets don’t give them enough revenue, and then they decide they really need to be more integrated with the government. We bailed out the airlines after 9/11. We bailed them out again during Covid. And I have argued against these bailouts because even if the airlines go bankrupt, we don’t see the airline industry go away. We just see it reorganize, and shareholders lose all their money — which is what’s supposed to happen when airlines can’t pay their bill, when any firm can’t pay their bills. But I think politically, that is what happens.
Sara Nelson, from the flight attendants’ union, also remembers the 9/11 airline bailout. And she didn’t like where the money went. Too much to the airlines themselves, not enough to employees.
NELSON: I had a front row seat to that, and I said, “This is not going to happen again.”
And so when Congress started talking about a Covid bailout —
NELSON: We put together a plan for relief that was based on keeping the workers in their jobs. We also had a lot of other demands — capping on executive pay, banning stock buybacks and dividends, seats on airline boards, neutrality in union organizing. We didn’t agree on all of the things in the program, but the basics of this being a workers-first program, keeping people in their jobs, which would then allow us to meet the demand when demand came back.
So we’ve learned quite a bit about what it costs to run an airline, about the volatility and the complexity — so let’s start hearing how airlines make their money, when they do. Here again is Ed Bastian from Delta:
BASTIAN: The majority, over 80 percent of our revenues, come from ticket revenues. And our ability to sell not just the tickets, but the upgrades to premium categories. We do have a cargo business. It does well. It’s maybe 5 percent of the total revenues of the airline. It was higher during the pandemic. And another huge source of revenue for us is our relationship with American Express and the credit card that we work together on. We are American Express’s number one partner — over 10 percent of their worldwide billings, of all Americans Express products, go on that Delta co-brand card.
DUBNER: I’ve read that you take in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from your loyalty program, SkyMiles. I don’t understand that. I would assume that’s a cost center, not a profit center.
BASTIAN: Well, the loyalty program is exactly what I mentioned here. So American Express this year will pay us over $5 billion for access to the SkyMiles that they reward their customers on the card.
DUBNER: I see. I see. Going back to cargo for a minute. I understand Delta is a big carrier for U.S.P.S. mail also?
BASTIAN: We are. We carry over $100 million a year. We have to bid the contracts. We work closely with the Postal Service, and try to make sure that our planes are reliable, on time, getting not just our passengers, but the mail, where they need to be on schedule.
DUBNER: Do you make more money per pound on mail cargo or on, let’s say, a coach passenger?
BASTIAN: Oh, it’s definitely on our passengers.
DUBNER: Okay, now, we’ve all read that if airlines didn’t have their business travelers, that coach maybe wouldn’t be possible. That basically premium or first-class or business, whatever you want to call it, essentially subsidizes the price of coach tickets. Can you break that down for me?
BASTIAN: There’s no question that if you think about the real estate of an airplane, the premium cabins on the plane have an outsized amount of revenue impact as compared to the main cabin. When we think about total revenues — and I’m including American Express and the loyalty plans, I’m including cargo, etc. — over 60 percent of our revenues are coming from a non-main cabin component. Meaning that the main cabins only carry about 40 percent of the total revenue, and that number continues to decrease.
What does this heavy reliance on business travel mean for non-business travelers? It means that if an airline has fewer business travelers, they may have to raise the price of coach tickets. And as of now, airlines are seeing fewer business travelers. Domestic business travel in the U.S. is only around 67 percent of what it was before Covid; international business travel is only at 54 percent. Here, again, is the economist Severin Borenstein:
BORENSTEIN: If business travel doesn’t recover, what we will gradually see is a smaller airline industry, with less frequent service on many routes, and potentially higher fares for the leisure travelers, because the business travelers are not there driving the revenue.
In their attempt to maximize profits, airlines practice what is called yield management. This means they are constantly adjusting prices to find the real-time sweet spot between supply and demand. Here’s Ed Bastian, from Delta:
BASTIAN: It’s pretty complicated. The industry releases over a thousand prices a day. Three times a day, you input your pricing. And it’s an auction. Customers on a popular route can buy up early, and you always want to make sure that you’re saving seats for the latter part of an itinerary.
An airline also wants to save seats for last-minute business travelers, who are willing to pay a premium price. Here’s Severin Borenstein:
BORENSTEIN: A pricing memo I got a hold of as part of an antitrust investigation from Northwest Airlines, basically said to its people who operated the pricing system, “You never cut prices in the last few days, even if the flight is not going to be full, because you’re much more likely to end up cutting the price for a business traveler who would have paid full-fare than bringing in any new travelers at the last minute.” And so they were definitely thinking about this tradeoff — on the one hand, lower prices will fill up the plane, but on the other hand, those passengers who would have flown anyway, you want to make sure you keep a higher price for them.
The antitrust investigation that Borenstein mentioned: that happens quite a bit in the airline industry, usually tied to an airline merger.
BORENSTEIN: Such as the mergers between Delta and Northwest, between United and Continental, between American and U.S. Air. These were major carriers that were merging, each arguing, “Well, we need to be big in order to compete with the other big airlines.”
And last summer, JetBlue announced plans to buy the ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit. This would create the fifth-largest U.S. carrier, behind Delta, American, United, and Southwest. Executives from JetBlue and Spirit say the merger would help them compete with the bigger airlines, and would therefore be good for consumers. The Justice Department disagrees, and it recently sued to block the merger. JetBlue and Spirit are both big in Florida; on some routes there, a combined JetBlue and Spirit would control more than 70 percent of the flights. So what’s the best way to think about an airline merger generally? It depends on where you’re sitting. Here’s Megan Ryerson, the transportation scholar at Penn who’s focused on making sure consumers can get where they want to go.
RYERSON: Here’s how I think about the impact of a merger. We have two airlines putting together their aircraft, their pilots, their crew, all of their resources. Of course this optimization is going to result in reducing operations in areas where they both serve. They’re going to cut flights, and airfares could go up in that market. But now they have some idle aircraft and idle pilots, and they might be able to open up service in new locations or add frequency to a place they’ve always wanted to add frequency to. One possible downside to mergers is that we have fewer airlines to hold each other accountable for good service. So you always see on social media, people say, “Oh, I’m never flying this airline again.” That rings kind of hollow when you only have four or five airlines to decide between. I’m sitting here in Philadelphia. American is my hub airline. If they provide me with bad service today, I’m probably still going to book a ticket on them when I need to go to a one-day meeting, and I want a nonstop flight there and back.
DUBNER: So would you prefer to see a federally or at least nationally-organized or -funded airline system in the U.S.?
RYERSON: I think we were there. And the result was a very high-fare, very inaccessible-to-most-people air transportation system. I mean, post-deregulation, you saw so many more people be able to fly. But at the same time, I would like to see more protection of our consumers. I’d like to see more protection of competition and fares.
Economists love to talk about economies of scale — the benefits and cost savings you get with a bigger operation. But even economists acknowledge that too much consolidation in a given industry can hurt consumers. And lately, it’s hard to find an industry that hasn’t undergone big-time consolidation. On this show alone, we’ve talked about consolidation in the pet-care industry, in the dialysis industry, and more. I asked Delta C.E.O. Ed Bastian to imagine he was speaking at a Senate committee hearing about airline consolidation, and I wanted to hear his argument in favor.
BASTIAN: I think consolidation has been a great success for consumers, as well as the employees of the airline. Prior to our acquisition of Northwest, there were roughly 10 big airlines in the United States, all of pretty good size. Our ability as an industry to invest in the quality of the service, the reliability of the product, the premiums, the international scope that airlines need to do in order to be sustainable, was nonexistent. You know, we were jumping from bankruptcy to bankruptcy. And so if low prices are your principal focus from a consumer standpoint, you can’t provide low prices, high quality of service, and reliability — those are incompatible. You need scale to be able to drive that. So you look at Delta and Northwest back then, in 2009, today we’re more than twice the size of what that entity was combined just ten years earlier.
DUBNER: Hm. If you were looking to just profit-maximize, to act as a pure economic actor, would you rather own an airline or an airport?
BASTIAN: An airport.
DUBNER: Because why?
BASTIAN: Because they’re a monopoly. We’re not building new ones. We might be updating the existing ones. So, they control access to a market. The vast majority of them are publicly owned, meaning they’re owned by the municipalities. It could be a city. It could be a state. It could be a regional operator. And we treat them as you would a landlord, where we rent space from them. And we invest in them, like we have recently in New York and L.A.X. and a few other locations. We don’t own the place, but we have a long, long lease that goes out — it’s probably at least 50 years. So we treat it as if we own it. Our airports really suffered from lack of investment, not just by the airports, but the airlines themselves. And we’ve set out on a path over the last decade to improve the ground experience for our customers. And the only way you can do that is invest in the infrastructure locally. The reason they’re so expensive is that airports, by and large, you have to rebuild them on the same piece of land that you’re operating. We can’t close them for six months. And so that makes it a very difficult form of real-estate development. But when we get it right — and that was one of the silver linings of the pandemic, is we were able to close sections of the airports and accelerate their development — you look at it, and it’s a beautiful thing. We just opened LaGuardia this year, and I hear from customers when they land sometimes they think they’ve landed in the wrong city. They think they’ve landed at some big international airport. I have to remind them, “No, it’s actually LaGuardia.”
Even if you have never been to LaGuardia airport in New York City, you’ve probably heard about it. Maybe back in 2014, when then-Vice President Joe Biden said this.
Joe BIDEN: If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you must think, “I must be in some third-world country.” I’m not joking.
Coming up: we visit the new LaGuardia. And we hear people say things that you never would have heard them say about the old LaGuardia.
PASSENGER: I think it’s fantastic.
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In 2014, when Joe Biden trashed LaGuardia airport as “third world,” that got the attention of New York’s then-governor Andrew Cuomo. He fast-tracked the development of a new terminal — Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport, which is owned by an agency called the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This agency has a reputation for being — how do I say this? … bad. A lot of people who live in New York and New Jersey think of the Port Authority as the worst kind of slumlord. The new Terminal B at LaGuardia had a chance to change that reputation. At the same time, Delta Air Lines was putting $4 billion into renovating their terminal at LaGuardia, Terminal C, which is also owned by the Port Authority. We stopped by LaGuardia not long ago to check out the new Terminal B.
Frank SCREMIN: So we’re going to go into our integrated operation center.
DUBNER: So these are some of those doors that when you’re a passenger in an airport —
SCREMIN: You wonder what’s behind them.
DUBNER: You wonder what’s behind them.
SCREMIN: Now you’re going to see.
SCREMIN: I’m the chief executive officer with LaGuardia Gateway Partners.
LaGuardia Gateway Partners is the private firm that redeveloped and now operates Terminal B.
SCREMIN: We’re a little bit different than running an entire airport, because we’re running an isolated terminal. So in our case, we collect rents from our airline partners, and we generate rents through our commercial concessionaires. We pay a rent to the Port Authority. And that’s really the basics of it.
LaGuardia Gateway Partners is a consortium of four firms, led by Vantage Airport Group. They are a Vancouver developer and airport operator that’s owned by a subsidiary of a New York private-equity firm called Corsair Capital. You got all that? Welcome to the world of public-private airport partnerships. And how common are such partnerships, and where? Let’s ask one of the authors of a research paper called “All Clear for Takeoff: Evidence from Airports on the Effects of Infrastructure Privatization.”
HOWELL: I’m Sabrina Howell. I’m an associate professor of finance at N.Y.U. Stern.
DUBNER: Okay. Here’s one thing that just puzzles me. When I look at the diagram in your paper of private ownership of airports, the whole global map is just dotted with dots. Dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, representing all these privately owned airports. And then we get to the U.S. and it’s, like, almost empty. Why? Why are we different?
HOWELL You’re right. About 20 percent of airports are privatized, but that goes up to 36 percent if we exclude the U.S. and China. Now, China, you might expect. But we were initially surprised that the U.S., which we might typically think of as a bastion of free-market capitalism, has no privatized airports. So the reason is that the U.S. has strong incentives from the federal government for airports to remain publicly owned and operated that don’t exist in most other countries.
DUBNER: So if I didn’t know any better, I might think when you say, “The federal government has strong incentives,” I would say, “Oh, that’s because our federal government cares about us and our bodily harm, they want us to arrive safely, not crash, and therefore they want to control the airport from the top to the bottom in order to have it be a safe experience.” Is that the reason? Or are there other reasons?
HOWELL: Well, in practice, the reasons that U.S. airports are not privatized is first, that they can raise tax-exempt revenue bonds, where investors in bonds issued by private companies have to pay tax on the interest they earn. So that makes it really hard for private debt to compete. And second, the airport can receive big federal airport-improvement-program grants, if they commit not to making a profit from airport operations.
If you listen between the lines to what Howell is saying, you might find yourself thinking: oh, that’s why American airports are often crowded and slow and unpleasant. They’re owned by public entities that don’t have much incentive to make them better. That’s the trend that LaGuardia is trying to shift. Frank Scremin did bring us behind some closed doors. He showed us their high-tech baggage-sorting system; he showed us an operations center; and in a back office, he showed us a poster mounted on the wall.
SCREMIN: So this is our — we just had a little bit of fun with this. This is kind of before and after. These are actual tweets and headlines and all that sort of stuff.
DUBNER: Read that one for me.
SCREMIN: “Remember when @JoeBiden called @LaGuardia Airport a third-world country? Well, it still is.” And then the New York Times article February 7th, 2014, said, “Some see Biden’s description of LaGuardia as ‘third world’ as too kind.” So that was all the before.
DUBNER: I applaud your embrace of the strong negative-before sentiment.
SCREMIN: But the sentiments changed substantially. So: “In one of the more shocking developments of my lifetime, the new terminal B at LaGuardia is really damn spectacular.”
DUBNER: Do you think that even the deep haters and skeptics would be won over?
SCREMIN: I think some of them have been. I was doing a tour with an airline, and a gentleman came up to me and said, “Do you work here?” And I hesitantly said, “Yes,” because I wasn’t sure what he was going to say. He says, “I got to tell you, I don’t live here anymore, but I’m from New York originally. This place is unreal. I don’t know how you guys did it, but it’s unbelievable.”
HOWELL: I have to tell you, a few weeks ago, I landed at LaGuardia, and I walked into Terminal B from the jet bridge.
That again is the N.Y.U. economist Sabrina Howell.
HOWELL: I swear, I thought to myself — “Oh, no, I’ve gone to Boston by mistake.” And I stood there for a few moments, totally disoriented by the change.
DUBNER: Wait a minute, the ceilings aren’t leaking. Where am I?
HOWELL: Exactly, where is the prison esthetic, I don’t know? So we saw a pretty successful outcome, where LaGuardia transitioned from being sort of an infrastructure hellscape to a really beautiful terminal, with much more capacity and much more amenities. The art and fountains and so forth of the new LaGuardia are terrific, and I think speaks to the degree that airports play this role as civic spaces, public spaces. And I think reflect this really complex contracting that the Port Authority did with this investor group. And that’s an example of a new public-private partnership for U.S. airports that the Port Authority is pioneering — that’s leveraging private capital, and in particular, the amount of debt that private-equity sponsors can arrange in order to finance what are now very costly projects.
DUBNER: And what does your research suggest will be the longer-term effects of this kind of public-private redevelopment? What do you predict we will see especially in terms of customer costs and level of service?
HOWELL: In this case with LaGuardia, what we’ve seen so far is a really successful capital-expenditure redevelopment. Whether private equity is well-suited for ongoing operation of the terminal and in particular, being responsible for negotiating with the airlines, negotiating retail leases in a way that benefits consumers, remains to be seen in the U.S. But what we find internationally suggests that it can be pretty successful. What we find is a consistent picture in which infrastructure funds — that is to say, P.E. ownership — improves airport performance across a range of measures, like increasing overall passenger traffic, the number of flights, freight traffic, the number of routes served by the airports, increasing passengers per flight — that’s an important efficiency measure. And we also show that private-equity-owned airports tend to win more quality awards and reduce flight cancellations, which probably is the biggest nuisance from the perspective of us travelers.
DUBNER: If I were to ask you, what do good airports do well, and what do bad airports do poorly, what would you say?
HOWELL: Good airports serve more passengers and more flights and more routes. They have higher-quality amenities in the terminal and offer a better passenger experience. I think a bad airport has excess capacity, that it’s not using well. So we see airports with gates that they’re not using, with space that they’re not using. They don’t aggressively try to get better stores, better restaurants, that will draw passengers and draw revenues. And they don’t invest in improvements.
The improvements at LaGuardia’s new Terminal B are dramatic. Frank Scremin walks us through the concourse. We check out the restrooms, the shops and restaurants. It’s all brand-new and shiny, of course, which helps; we’ll see how it looks in a few years. But still: it’s nothing like the old LaGuardia. There’s a lot of natural light; the ceilings are high — and they’re not leaking! There is some water coming from the ceiling — but it’s a legitimate water feature, colorful, whimsical, something you’d expect to see at a Vegas hotel or on a Disney property. It’s apparently the first of its kind in an airport anywhere in the world. And it is at LaGuardia!
Joe BIDEN: You must think, “I must be in some third-world country.
The water feature comes alive every 15 minutes and all the passengers we spoke with had a similar response.
PASSENGER 1: I love it. It’s very emotional to see the water and the music, transporting you to the magic place.
PASSENGER 2: I think it’s fantastic. It just makes you happy — makes you feel happy.
“It just makes you happy.” Those are not words you’re used to hearing when we talk about airline travel, or airports especially. Unless you’re talking with Maria Diploudis. Remember her? She was on her way to visit her family in Greece.
DIPLOUDIS: Things can always go wrong. You might have a flight that gets delayed. There might be a mix-up with your luggage. You might end up sitting next to someone wearing too much cologne. But I think as a concept, air travel is just incredible. It’s a bunch of strangers floating in the sky together in a giant metal container.
Her $700 ticket, on K.L.M. Royal Dutch Airlines, brought her first from San Francisco to Amsterdam, where she made this recording:
DIPLOUDIS: I think that there’s this unity that happens in airports, where it doesn’t matter where you’re from, doesn’t matter if you don’t even speak the same language — we’re all doing this incredible thing of air travel. And we are from all over the world, but just in this moment, you’re in the same place and time. There’s not a lot of things that have that way of bringing together.
From Amsterdam, she flew on to Athens, and then to the small Greek island where her ailing uncle lives. You don’t have to understand Greek to understand what happens next. If you’re lucky, it’s happened to you too.
DIPLOUDIS: Γειά σου Θείο. [Hi uncle.]
UNCLE: Ελλά ρε Μονιο. [Hey Monio.]
DIPLOUDIS: Ααα, γεια σου. [Awww, hi.]
UNCLE: Καλωσόρισες εδώ. [Welcome.]
DIPLOUDIS: Ευχαριστώ. Ευχαριστώ. [Thank you. Thank you.]
UNCLE: Το έχω, από ‘κι το αφίσα γιατί εδώ δεν ε — [I have it, from that side, I left it because here —]
DIPLOUDIS: Ναι, ναι. [Yes, yes.]
Thanks for traveling with us these past few episodes. We know you have many podcasts to choose from, and we appreciate your choosing ours.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley and mixed by Greg Rippin. We had recording help at LaGuardia from Jason Pina and in Atlanta from Evan Profant. Special thanks to all our listeners who sent in their travel diaries; and to Lillian Bates for helping organize them. Our staff also includes Zack Lapinski, Morgan Levey, Katherine Moncure, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. The Freakonomics Radio Network’s executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.
- Ed Bastian, C.E.O. of Delta Air Lines.
- Volodymyr Bilotkach, economist and professor in the college of Aviation and Transportation Technology at Purdue Polytechnic Institute.
- Severin Borenstein, professor of business administration and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
- Maria Diploudis, Freakonomics Radio listener and airline passenger.
- Greg Foran, C.E.O. of Air New Zealand.
- Sabrina Howell, professor of finance at New York University.
- David Neeleman, founder and C.E.O. of Breeze Airways.
- Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants.
- Megan Ryerson, U.P.S. Chair of Transportation and associate dean for research at the Weitzman School of Design, University of Pennsylvania.
- Frank Scremin, C.E.O. of LaGuardia Gateway Partners.
- “Justice Dept. Sues to Block JetBlue’s Acquisition of Spirit,” by Niraj Chokshi (The New York Times, 2023).
- “How Delta Air Lines Makes Money: Passenger, Cargo, Other,” by Nathan Reiff (Investopedia, 2023).
- “All Clear for Takeoff: Evidence from Airports on the Effects of Infrastructure Privatization,” by Sabrina T. Howell, Yeejin Jang, Hyeik Kim, and Michael S. Weisbach (NBER Working Paper, 2022).
- “Delta Air Lines Announces December Quarter and Full Year 2022 Profit,” by Delta Air Lines (2022).
- The Economics of Airlines: Second Edition, by Volodymyr Bilotkach (2021).
- “How Airline Ticket Prices Fell 50 Percent in 30 Years (And Why Nobody Noticed),” by Derek Thompson (The Atlantic, 2013).
- “Why Is Flying Safer Than Driving?” Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “Air Travel Is a Miracle. Why Do We Hate It?” Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “Should You Trust Private Equity to Take Care of Your Dog?” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “Is Dialysis a Test Case of Medicare for All?” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).