1.20.2006 | The end of Independence Air

Update: As of 1/22/06, it appears the Independence Air Web site is no longer online.

I flew Independence Air once in 2000 when it was still known as Atlantic Coast Airways, a feeder for United Express service on the East Coast. I flew from Dulles to Indianapolis, and it was one of the best domestic flight experiences I ever had on a small plane. It was a regional jet, not a turboprop, so the cabin was quiet, and the flight was very smooth, and most importantly, non-stop. This is the kind of freedom Independence Air offered when it broke away from United in 2004 to start its own (independent) service – plenty of non-stop flights from Dulles, but with lower fares.

Now that independence is gone, and the giants of the Washington market like United are free to raise fares again. Under bankruptcy United has largely restructured itself in the model of a low-fare airline. With the exception of "Economy Plus" seats added for more legroom, seats have become narrower and the same planes are carrying fewer passengers, a model pioneered by Southwest Airlines, the original low-fare carrier in the 80s. Legroom is fine, but it's difficult to navigate eating a meal or typing on a laptop without the necessary elbow room.

In any case, the collapse of Independence Air shows the final result of airline deregulation begun in the 1980s: a decline in the quality of airline service in a race to the bottom to provide the lowest fares. That is the inevitable result of laissez faire capitalism, as we have seen with Wal-Mart and the like providing lower prices, but inferior goods.

The middle class is disappearing in this country as cheap Chinese TV sets flood the market, but the quality sets sell for more than the average American can afford. The same principle applies to airline seats: narrower seats for the coach class, and ever-increasing amenities for those who are willing to pay a premium by flying first class.

Not only that, but airlines have stopped offering meals on board. People always used to complain about airline food, but for a while in the 90s United was using gourmet chefs. In a campaign called "United Airlines rising," it admitted the bad state of airline food and showed what it was doing to improve. Now all that's gone, meals replaced with "snack packs," sandwiches and wraps. The flying experience has been reduced to a lunch line, all for the sake of deregulation and the resulting race to the bottom for the lowest fare.

On cheap Chinese TV sets:

this is an audio post - click to play
On the race to the bottom for low fares:

this is an audio post - click to play

With the departure of Independence Air, though, opportunites have opened up for competitor JetBlue, which is going to start offering service to Boston, a small consolation prize. Better service is actually available from Richmond because it files from there to JFK, the airline's hub, allowing connections to more destinations on par with what Independence Air was able to offer.

So why did Independence Air fail? As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it used smaller planes. These smaller planes, the majority of FlyI's fleet, presented a significantly higher cost per mile per passenger than the rest of the industry, and it couldn't sustain its low-fare business without switching to bigger planes. It never quite made the switch, and so it went bust. As it turns out, FlyI ended its service to the West Coast in November 2005 before it went out of business completely this year. I didn't know when I visited San Francisco this summer that it would be the last time I would see a D.C.-based airline on the West Coast.

Alas, poor Independence Air, I knew ye well.

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