While tens of thousands of people protested Donald Trump’s travel ban at airports nationwide, Delta Airlines announced a travel ban of its own. The company’s second major computer outage in six months froze domestic departures for hours on Sunday, forcing the cancellation of about 170 flights overnight and another 110 on Monday. It was the second major airline power outage in a week, following a United failure. Donald Trump even blamed the Delta disaster for problems at the airports, to deflect from the chaos of his immigration ban.
Delta and its fellow airline giants aren’t Trump’s excuse to employ but his problem to solve. As I wrote back in August, these IT breakdowns have become more frequent as the industry has concentrated. Ancient legacy systems get grafted together with Scotch tape, without the investments necessary to keep them from imploding.
Recent airline mergers were all sold on the basis of creating efficiencies for passengers; instead they just magnify disruptions by making supply chains more fragile. Outages among the four airlines that manage 85 percent of all domestic routes cause outsized delays, cancellations and missed connections. Judging by their actions, the airlines clearly don’t care. Delta may have lost $100 million in sales after the August crash, but with a record-breaking $6.6 billion in profits last year, it had little incentive to invest in improvements. After all, consumers have nowhere else to go.
This concept of judging corporations by actions carries over to the other major transportation snafu of the weekend. When New York City taxi drivers called for a one-hour wildcat strike, refusing pickups at JFK airport to protest the immigration ban, Uber used the opportunity to suspend surge pricing, making its service more attractive and available.
Uber’s knee-jerk reaction to undermine the strike overshadowed its vows of sympathy with those suffering. CEO Travis Kalanick promised to support the “dozen or so” drivers affected with pro bono compensation while they await return to the U.S., although the other vague gestures in the statement (“takes virtually no position aside from that America is great”) underwhelmed. But in a moment of decision, Uber saw an expression of solidarity with refugee families and thought immediately about how to make money off it. And people recognized this, as the hashtag “#deleteUber” went viral on social media.
The calculating responses by other tech companies in an attempt to avoid Uber’s pitfall didn’t end up looking much better. Lyft, Uber’s main nationwide competitor, announced it would give $1 million to the ACLU — only the fine print said that the donation would stretch over four years. Lyft’s investors include Trump advisor Peter Thiel. The same is true of Facebook and startup incubator Y Combinator, whose milquetoast statements of opposition to the ban also did not address this fact.
Airbnb pledged free housing to those stranded in a country other than their own because of the immigration ban. But because the company doesn’t own any physical properties, it’s really only begging its members to volunteer their own properties for free. This costs Airbnb nothing, and relies on the generosity of their members for a PR bonanza.
This tendency to exploit public anger with a less-meaningful-than-advertised show of solidarity — call it the anti-Trump version of oil companies’ pro-environment “greenwashing,” so maybe Trump-washing — has become ubiquitous among Silicon Valley, which you can’t spell without the word “con.” The history of foreign-born entrepreneurs and employees in the tech world may make Trump’s executive order hit home, but ultimately the gestures have been toothless — and sometimes, like in the case of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, so have the words. Like Kalanick, Musk sits on a Trump administration advisory panel.
The real danger to tech giants is the threat to their desire to dominate the globe, and how Trump’s ham-fisted aggression might rub off on them. The White House’s imminent executive order limiting work-visa programs that Silicon Valley relies on for its employee base will cause far greater concern, because of the threat to the bottom line. While these programs have their place, they have also been employed to drive down worker wages.
This is why enabling massive corporate concentration that reduces the power of workers and innovators means so much more than what can be seen on the balance sheet. Multinationals seeking a foothold in every market will inevitably take no stand that might disrupt their ability to make a buck, and work with anyone, no matter how odious. Non-union behemoths with no history or understanding of solidarity will put their profits ahead of any other value. A sense of social responsibility is important, though it never appears in an economic analysis of a merger or statistic about union density. Your local monopolist is not interested in how you feel or who you support, only that you have no other choice but to purchase their wares.
Unfortunately for Uber, they let the mask slip before cornering the market in ride-hailing. Anyone can build an app, even the taxi companies, without impoverishing their employees so much they have to sleep in their cars. Uber’s strategy of burning through venture capital money to attract market share, only to turn the tables and jack up prices amid no competition, ran up against a fundamental issue – losing the trust of the customer base, which finally realized that what they buy is a political act.
Delta is where Uber wants to be: comfortably ensconced as the nation’s second-largest airline, insulated from public opinion, regardless of quality control or greed. Delta, American and United have responded to regions that can’t support their business by simply abandoning them, something Uber would gladly emulate. Forty years of deregulation brought us to that point of ripping away airline passenger control. In other words, Uber’s biggest error lay in not securing their monopoly yet.
If Trump wants to truly make America safe, he could use the century-old laws on the books to break up monopolies that prey upon all citizens. But he’s apparently more concerned with theater that gives the impression of freedom and security, rather than making people truly secure and free.