Where Are the Airlines Headed? Implications of Airline Industry Structure and Change for Consumers

By Rubin, Rose M.; Joy, Justin N. | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Where Are the Airlines Headed? Implications of Airline Industry Structure and Change for Consumers


Rubin, Rose M., Joy, Justin N., The Journal of Consumer Affairs


The airline industry is undergoing unprecedented change. This paper explores the consumer impacts of recent airline industry change, in the context of its oligopoly market structure and current industry environment. Economic and noneconomic events, increasing competition from low-fare carriers, technological developments, and changes in industry practices are transforming consumer travel and interaction with airlines. Consumers can anticipate more direct flights, increased price transparency, and increased fees and time cost of security.

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In 2001, commercial airlines carried nearly 450 million passengers for leisure, personal, and business travel, an increase of approximately 250% since the 1978 industry deregulation (U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics 2002) (see Figure 1). Despite this long-term growth, the number of passengers increased only about 1.5 % annually from 1997 to 2001 (U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics 2002). The airlines were buffeted by both economic and exogenous factors that coincided with particular force. In 2002 and early 2003, virtually every major carrier was under bankruptcy protection or claimed to be on the verge of bankruptcy.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Since the late 1970s, airlines have endured two waves of dramatic change and restructuring that heavily affected consumers and their travel decision making. The first wave occurred postderegulation with fare competition, industry expansion, and development of the hub-and-spoke system. The second wave occurred through industry consolidation in the latter half of the 1980s (Kim and Singal 1993). Consumers are now impacted by a third wave of changes in the industry, the most radical since the 1978 deregulation. These structural changes are particularly evident in the ticket procurement process, the hub-and-spoke route network infrastructure, industry consolidation, and the market factors that led to the emergence of low-fare carriers.

Numerous researchers (Brueckner, Dyer, and Spiller 1992; Kim and Singal 1993) have analyzed the industry with empirical studies emphasizing the competitive interaction and pricing behavior of airline finns in an oligopoly structure in the wake of mergers. Other analyses (Borenstein 1989; Hendricks, Piccione, and Tan 1995, 1997) examined the effect of hub-and-spoke networks on airline competition, the competitive effects of the industry's significant entry barriers (Strassmann 1990), and the effect of low-fare carriers (Morrison 2001).

The objective of this paper is to explore the impacts of airline industry change on consumers, in the context of the airline oligopoly market structure and current environment. We examine the effects of recent developments in technology, route networks, and competitive structures on the airline industry, providing a basis for future empirical analysis of the impacts of these changes. We discuss the airline industry oligopoly structure, the economic and exogenous milieu of airline transport and travel decision making, and the impacts of technological change on airlines and consumers, as well as the current state of the industry. Finally, we present our perspective of how the industry structure and its changing competitive environment may affect consumers.

AIRLINE INDUSTRY STRUCTURE

The airline industry is characterized by an oligopoly market structure, a form of imperfect competition in which a limited number of firms dominate the industry. (1) Oligopoly firms have market power in setting or altering prices for their products by establishing various output levels. Since oligopoly firms produce similar outputs and compete with their industry rivals, any action an oligopoly firm takes is noticed by its competitors. Consequently, rivals may react with price-cutting or other attempts to enhance market share. Thus, the firms in an oligopoly are interdependent, and each recognizes that its market power is vulnerable to erosion by competitors or new market entrants. …

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