Grapple: not all is right in news about United Airlines

United Airlines was off to another turbulent start Monday morning. Less than one week after their viral PR quaff, involving airport security violently dragging a doctor through the aisle of a plane, the nation's most distrusted major airline is yet again in the spotlight. This time: a couple was booted from a flight that was supposed to take them to their own wedding.

In this round of reports, as in the last, news readers face misinformation and sloppy reporting. More than ever before, people are getting their news from web-based platforms. This news is accessed and delivered by search engines and social media platforms return news that users are already aware of. Modern newsrooms often work to advance existing narratives, collecting facts that reinforce those story lines. News outlets rely on web traffic to generate revenue; they employ staff to feed this beast with content based on the current most popular social media topics.

Remember when Donald Trump "didn't stand a chance of winning the election," just one day before he won the election? Those same affirmation-biased gremlins have reared their heads again in this round of viral news. In the case of United, a lot of not-quite-correct information worked its way into the national conversation. Once thrown into the mix, these misleading facts multiplied as they entered and were passed around the collective social narrative.

Soon, Grapple's fact checking software will be able to catch inconsistencies across breaking news reports and alert readers using a web browser or smartphone application. For now, here's a rundown of the week's airplane malarky, crafted together the old fashioned way (by my 10 fingers).

 

1. Are Americans unhappy with their airlines? Not as much as newsrooms think. 

The problems that lead to last week's highly-publicized incidents have been well documented at United. The airline has long ranked at or near the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys, but, things have been improving of late. 

Those improvements aren't isolated to just United; Airlines have broken records in recent customer satisfaction surveys. Americans gave airlines an average of 72 out of 100 points in scientific surveys conducted last year by the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. That is the highest number ever recorded by that industry, matched only once before in 1994.

That survey, published last April by USA Today, did not make it into many of the news reports about the United Airlines debacle. Instead, writers at publications such as The Washington Post found justification for a different narrative. Their source? A CBS Moneywatch article from the same period claiming that "Frustration with U.S. airlines is soaring."

Fact: United Airlines has customer service problems.

Not-fact: Satisfaction with U.S. airlines has "plummeted." 

In authoring that CBS piece, Bruce Kennedy relied on aggregated quotes from industry analysts along with a U.S. Travel Association survey. That survey, according to Kennedy, "reports most travelers would even be willing to pay several dollars more per ticket, if that payment went toward improving airline efficiency and offering more choices."

Per this chain of logic: willingness to pay for better service = dissatisfaction with current levels of service. This is a false assumption. Customer satisfaction with U.S. airlines has been improving steadily for several years in every single survey that regularly measures the industry, including J.D. Power and Associates, Skytrax, and the aforementioned ACSI.

Verdict: Certainly not everyone is happy with every airline interaction, but reliable data clearly contradicts a vast majority of news reports published. 

 

2. It is difficult to boycott United Airlines. No, it's not.

A peculiar story run this weekend by The Washington Post makes an argument that customers don't have a choice when it comes to their future travel plans. "Want to boycott United? Good luck with that," teases a headline on Christopher Ingraham's Wonkblog post. 

Fact: United airlines serves over 100 million customers per year.

Not-fact: Nearly every other conclusion drawn in this article, and in articles modeled after it.

Ingraham goes on to make the assertion that "major airports are increasingly becoming one- or two-carrier affairs." That paraphrase is linked to a 2015 Denver Post article that contains some tidbits about service consolidation at major airports. Among the facts cited in the Denver Post story was data extracted from an Associated Press analysis: 

"40 of the 100 largest U.S. airports, a single airline controls a majority of the market, as measured by the number of seats for sale, up from 34 airports a decade earlier."

"At 93 of the top 100, one or two airlines control a majority of the seats, an increase from 78 airports, according to AP’s analysis of data from Diio, an airline-schedule tracking service."

Interesting facts, though neither support the claim that any airports "are becoming one- or two-carrier affairs." The real whammy of a lie in this story, however, lies in Ingraham's next paragraph:

"United could be the cheapest option serving a major air route. Or, it could be the only option. And that makes a boycott complicated."

Nowhere in Ingraham's article, nor in any of the included links, is there an example of an airport where United is the only airline serving two city pairs, anywhere in the entire United States. That's because there are very few; like Sonoma County Airport, which is actually welcoming several new carriers this year, after years of being served only by Alaska Airlines' subsidiary Horizon. 

Ingraham manages to make the headline and introductory paragraphs all the more disingenuous with a chart buried beyond the level where many readers have stop reading. That chart examines United's most dominant markets, including its so-called "fortress hubs," in terms of total market share. 

So what is United's most dominant market? Houston, where the airline controls 51 percent of all passenger traffic. In the worst case scenario, determined by The Post's own reportage, 49 out of every 100 seats leaving the city are on airlines other than United. And I thought my choice of tap water sources was limited...

Verdict: Ingraham goes on to paint a more subtle picture of airport consolidation, which does not reliably establish the article's pompous premise that flyers will have a hard time avoiding United if they so choose. 

Following Ingraham's original assertion, a principled boycott-driven flier in Houston is just out of luck should he need to visit another U.S city. His alternatives seem limited to walking, jogging, or bicycling cross-country. Or maybe could find a flight on Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Jet Blue, Southwest, or Spirit, which through their collective route networks connect Houston with nearly every U.S. airport.

Good luck with that.

 

3. Consumers have been hurt by aircraft consolidation. Not so simple, and not necessarily true: This is a complicated economic question with competing fields of thought.

Don't worry, though, your local news editor, replete with a bachelors degree, should have no problem boiling this complex economic question down in the 45 minutes it takes to get a post online. But alas, journalists are not superheroes capable of flawlessly condensing both time and space. 

Consider stories published last week by outlets including ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, The New York Times, and USA Today. If you take them for their trusted word on the subject, you'd be a fool not to believe that mergers in the airline industry have been nothing but purgatory for anyone looking to get out of town.

Fact: There are fewer airlines in the United States than there were five years ago.

Not-fact: Industries with four major competitors are inherently stagnant and hurt consumers.

Significant bodies of economic thought suggest that oligopolies may produce more desirable outcomes than a perfectly competitive market. In a perfectly competitive market, where consumers have unlimited choices, profit margins approach zero. With zero margin, firms have no resources to perform research and development, nor to develop specializations, nor to invest in their brand or reputation. 

Consider some of the industries that are dominated by a few major players, including video games, film, personal computers and aircraft.

Now consider airlines. Ten years ago a number of U.S. airlines were on the verge of bankruptcy. They had stopped serving even the most primitive of snacks in their cabins. Their on-time performance and customer satisfaction ratings were abysmal, and at many airports customers actually had fewer routing options. Because there are four major airlines that are now capable of providing efficient service between nearly every city pair in the nation, customers at any airport can choose evenly between them based on their relationship with that airline. 

It is now as easy to find convenient flight schedules between Cleveland and Tampa Bay on Southwest Airlines or Delta Airlines as it is on United or American. Just five years years ago, many routes out of Cleveland were dominated by a single carrier, Continental, which operated a fortress hub in Cleveland.

Certainly there have been adverse effects due to airline consolidation; however, there is no economic consensus on whether or not airline customers are better off or worse off now versus decade ago.

Based on the customer satisfaction surveys though, there may be a strong argument that this round of mergers has actually had an overall positive effect on consumer outcomes.

Verdict: At the very least, the jury is out, and wary news readers should be aware of these factual inconsistencies.