DOT’s airline price gouging investigation and a political economy-based prediction

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it had launched an investigation into possible “unfair practices (e.g., price gouging) affecting air travel during the period of time that Amtrak service along the Northeast Corridor was delayed or suspended as a result of the May 12th derailment.” Five airlines received letters from the agency seeking information on prices for travel between airports most affected by the derailment. CBS News in New York had the story, as did many other media outlets.

In the statement released by the DOT Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, “The idea that any business would seek to take advantage of stranded rail passengers in the wake of such a tragic event is unacceptable. This Department takes all allegations of airline price-gouging seriously, and we will pursue a thorough investigation of these consumer complaints.” The DOT was responding to consumer complaints and a letter from U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT).

Pure political theater.

The law DOT cites, 49 US Code § 41712, allows the department to investigate whether an airline “has been or is engaged in an unfair or deceptive practice or an unfair method of competition in air transportation or the sale of air transportation.” In the event the department finds price gouging, the sole remedy present in the law is to order the airlines to stop. Given that rail travel was restored after five days, prices have already returned to normal. No meaningful remedy is possible…

…unless DOT wants to go big: rather than finding the prices constituted unfair practices, the DOT could conclude that the airlines’ computerized pricing algorithms constitute unfair practices and order airlines to cease employing them. The airlines’ dynamic pricing systems are not popular with consumers, so they might make an appealing political target. Such a response would be meaningful, in that it would impose significant costs on airlines to reform their systems, but is such a conclusion likely?

The word “unfair” is not defined in the law; the DOT said it relies upon the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Policy Statement on Unfairness for a working definition. The policy statement provided a three factor approach to fairness. considering: (1) consumer injury, (2) violation of public policy, and (3) unethical or unscrupulous conduct. In practice the FTC relies only on the first two factors.

Under the policy, apparent consumer injury is judged against the commercial benefits associated with the trade practice. While dynamic pricing is unpopular with consumers, it is profitable for airlines. In addition, it likely produces prices and service quality that are, on average, better for consumers than otherwise. A balancing of apparent harms and apparent benefits should tilt in favor of dynamic pricing.

Here is my political economy-based prediction:

After a month or two the DOT will report finding that airline prices did jump suddenly after the derailment as demand for air travel jumped up. They will observe that initial price spikes resulted from airlines’ computerized pricing mechanisms and did not reflect an intent to “take advantage of stranded passengers in the wake of such a tragic event.” They will note that airlines responded by adding flights and pressing larger aircraft into service. The report will conclude temporary price spikes reflected the ordinary workings of supply and demand under short-lived extraordinary circumstances. No finding of unfair practices will result, and no trade practices will be condemned.

While the announcement of the investigation produced a lot of press, the release of the report will produce little press. A finding of “ordinary workings of supply and demand” is not newsworthy.

What is more, the DOT already knows this answer. It already believes there is nothing to find in the data it is requesting. Still, a Senator wrote a letter — by the way Senator Murphy sits on the Senate subcommittee that oversees the DOT budget — and the DOT responded.

The Senator himself, too, either already knows this answer or simply has not thought too hard about it. But why should he think about a future no-news report? The announcement of the investigation and the press that the announcement garnered, that was the goal. The rest is noise.

[Thanks to Tom Konrad for bringing the story to my attention.]

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One thought on “DOT’s airline price gouging investigation and a political economy-based prediction

  1. “The Senator himself, too, either already knows this answer or simply has not thought too hard about it.”

    Clearly the latter. If he understood economics, he would not be a Democrat

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