Many of us have become accustomed to cheap flights, but as prices spiral, it's time to ask about their true cost. And politicians' plan to bring in cheap labor to keep down prices is doomed to fail.
BERLIN — You get what you pay for. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. It is hypocritical for passengers to complain about the chaos that has dominated airports since the start of the holiday season. These problems could easily have been predicted.
No one can seriously believe that a business model whereby passengers are transported from A to B for such a ridiculously low price is sustainable. When flights cost a fraction of a train ticket, something must be wrong. Costs are either being disregarded or passed on to someone else.
Or this cost is being financed by hidden government subsidies that apply to various elements of air travel – whether it’s taxpayers’ money being used to build planes and airports or tax cuts on kerosene. Or it’s the customers who pay, through poor service that costs them time and causes stress, as is so often the case these days. Even with air travel, the basic rule of the market economy applies: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone always pays – and in the worst case scenario, those who pay the price are third parties such as the climate, the environment or future generations.
Too cheap for the service delivered
Even one of the founding fathers of cheap air travel – Michael O’Leary, who has been CEO of Ryanair for almost 30 years – has admitted that flights are too cheap. The Financial Times quoted him as saying that it was ridiculous that in London the journey to the airport costs more than the flight itself. He said flying was simply “too cheap for what it is”. Consequently, O’Leary also announced that in the next few years, Ryanair would raise average ticket prices from the current rate of 40 euros to 50 or 60 euros.
They are reaching for tired old policies that should have been consigned to the history books
But the reaction from German politicians is the opposite. They do not want to admit that air travel needs to be more expensive and are persisting under the illusion that cheap flights can be sustainable, although their predecessors have long given up on that dream.
They could encourage companies to hire more qualified staff and pay those who work on planes and at airports – in security or baggage handling – a higher salary to create more attractive jobs, which are being lost in other industries through digitalization, automation and machines. Instead, they are reaching for tired old policies that should have been consigned to the history books long ago – genuinely suggesting bringing in Turkish immigrants as cheap labor to allow the cost of air travel to remain as low as it has always been.
Airplane window seat
Lessons from the past
They have clearly learned nothing from the mistakes of the past. In the 1960s, the government tried a similar tactic, using migrant workers to plug holes in the job market. Millions of workers were employed in factory assembly lines across Germany, doing back-breaking work for a salary that no German was prepared to settle for. And then people were surprised that those who came did not go back to their home country afterwards.
Turkish migrant workers were seen as a cheap solution, but the policy created expensive problems. Immigration cannot be so precisely controlled that it exclusively suits the needs of the host country. It follows its own path, with unforeseen long-term consequences such as migrants bringing their families to join them.
Unlike machines, people cannot be easily, quickly and cheaply moved around the economy like pawns on a chessboard.
Skilled workers don't come cheap
Calls for cheap migrant labor, or for more or better-targeted immigration, misunderstand basic market forces. Politicians are not prepared to tackle a labor shortage by improving working conditions or raising salaries. They want flights to stay cheap at all costs. But they are deliberately ignoring the costs in terms of integration that a rise in immigration entails. Fundamentally, they are refusing to acknowledge that skilled workers don’t come cheap.
The vicious cycle of cheap labor will become a real and very pressing problem
It is the same as trying to tackle a shortage of care workers through imposing a year of compulsory service. It is the same attitude that claims being a soldier is so easy that anyone can do it. Or that care work doesn’t require any special skills or qualities. Similarly, the shortage of airport staff cannot be resolved through migrant labor. Undervaluing skilled workers in this way will simply put off anyone who wants to earn a decent salary.
That means the shortage will get even worse and the complaints will grow louder. The vicious cycle of cheap labor will become a real and very pressing problem. It would be far more sensible to allow flights to become more expensive and pay airline workers better. That is the only way to improve efficiency, productivity, satisfaction and living standards in the long term.
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