Airlines got coronavirus aid, so why are they stingy on flight refunds and safety?

Airline industry received help from taxpayers — $25 billion, most of it outright grants. Yet travelers' complaints are up: Our view

Airlines got coronavirus aid, so why are they stingy on flight refunds and safety?

Air traffic in America is surging! That’s the good news for the airlines.

The bad news is that the increase has taken traffic from about 4% of what would have been expected to about 18%: On Sunday for instance, the Transportation Security Administration processed 441,255 people through airport checkpoints, up from 87,534 on April 14. But a year ago, the TSA was processing about 2.5 million people.

Those numbers say a lot about where the airline industry is. Its numbers are going up and likely will go up further over the summer. But anything close to normal looks to be a long way off.

Air travel complaints up

To be perfectly clear, airlines are invaluable to the U.S. economy and to the lives of millions of Americans. They are getting clobbered through no fault of their own, just when things had seemingly stabilized after a turbulent, multidecade era of consolidation and restructuring.

Also to be clear, the airline industry is doing a lot to justify the spike in complaints that the Department of Transportation has reported.

While 73% of U.S. flights are less than half full, according to the industry’s top trade association, many of the rest are too tight for comfort. Any plane that is near capacity is a petri dish where COVID-19 can spread.

AIRLINES FOR AMERICA:Well-being of travelers is our top priority

A passenger wears personal protective equipment on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston on June 7, 2020.

Normally it would be harsh to blame airlines for filling seats, but these are not normal times. Airlines have received $25 billion in compensation from federal taxpayers, most of it outright grants. The least they could do is make their passengers safer by not selling middle seats.

Adding further fuel to the fire is that airlines are, in most cases, offering vouchers for future travel rather than cash refunds on canceled flights. That's thin gruel for people strapped for cash and won't be traveling for years.

Again, that might be normal, but these are not normal times. Congress did not give airlines tax credits to be used over time (probably a very long time given their skill minimizing their tax liabilities). It gave them, or lent them, cash. The way airlines are spending that goes a long way in explaining what they see as its purpose.

Stimulus meant to dodge layoffs

The main function of the money is, of course, macroeconomic. Like funds provided to other industries and to small businesses, the money for airlines is designed to minimize layoffs. Inevitably, others will benefit as well when such large sums are distributed.

By being so stingy with refunds and callous with safety, the airlines are essentially saying they want all of the collateral benefit to go to investors, creditors and shareholders — and not to customers.

To a lot of regular users of airlines, that will not come as a surprise. They have long gotten used to feeling like a commodity as they deal with long lines, frequent delays, and the ongoing imperative of getting the largest allowable carry-on bag onto a plane and into an overhead bin.

With a pandemic putting people’s health at risk and, in some cases, putting a big squeeze on people’s finances, it would have been nice to see something more than the usual out of airlines.

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