Warren Buffett: Airlines are becoming “cattle cars” because that’s what we want

Let them drink Coke.
Let them drink Coke.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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If you are looking some sympathy for your terrible experience on a US airline, don’t ask Warren Buffett.

The billionaire investor and CEO of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway says that a good price is more important to passengers than legroom or other services aboard.

Buffett invested in the United States’ little-liked major airlines last year, including United, after cheap fuel helped them rake in record profits. The price of seats have declined recently, leading airlines to seek creative ways to squeeze more money from passengers, charging for services that used to be free perks.

Large domestic carriers recently rolled out new basic economy classes that promise an even worse experience than regular coach class. In exchange for a slightly cheaper price, basic economy passengers board last, aren’t allowed to choose their seats, and are forbidden from using precious overhead bins. Airline executives are also trying to fit even more travelers on board by reducing already scarce legroom.

Airplanes “may become like cattle cars, but a significant percentage [of passengers] would rather be treated that way and fly for X than have far more legroom…and fly for X plus 25%,” Buffett told CNBC Monday.

Indeed, a 2016 survey by the International Air Transport Association, a trade group, shows that price is the top reason passengers choose a certain airline, while on-board comfort—if you can call it that— came in third.

The violent dragging of passenger David Dao off of a United Airlines flight last month sparked public outage about years of mistreatment of passengers by US airlines. Even US lawmakers joined in last week and chastised airline executives for their poor service and myriad fees.

Buffett, who long shunned investing in US commercial airlines (pdf) because they were prone to booms and busts, clearly isn’t investing in them now because passengers are more comfortable. But if he’s considering his own comfort and that of his shareholders, he should note that airline profits have dwindled, partly as the result of more expensive fuel.

“It’s a job I don’t want, running an airline,” he said.