Boeing Shows Us Why Prices Are Too Important for Private Enterprise to Decide Alone

The sad tale of Boeing’s pricing of essential safety features for the 737 MAX 8 as product options is an object lesson in why pricing should always be a public-private project.

Many firms engage in price discrimination: charging different prices for the same product. The ideal way to do that is to generate reliable information on the willingness of each customer to pay, and then to charge higher prices to those willing to pay more and lower prices to those willing to pay less. But often firms can’t just discriminate in prices directly, either because discriminatory pricing would be politically sensitive, or because firms just don’t know how much buyers are willing to pay. So firms discriminate indirectly, by splitting the product into a base model and then selling optional additions.

By pricing the additions far above the actual incremental cost of adding the addition onto the product, the firm can seduce buyers into bringing price discrimination upon themselves. The buyer who is relatively price insensitive — and therefore has a high willingness to pay — will load up on options, and end up paying a far higher total price for the product than will the price-sensitive buyers, who will go with the base model. If this sounds like the business model of the car industry, that’s because car makers — particularly GM — pioneered this form of covert price discrimination in the mid-20th century.

Is covert price discrimination of this kind good for the economy? If a firm’s overhead is so high that the firm would not be able to cover costs, including overhead costs, at a competitive uniform price, then the answer may be yes. But if not, then price discrimination represents a pure redistribution of wealth from consumers to firms, by allowing firms to raise prices higher than necessary, to those consumers who happen to be willing to pay more.

Boeing’s decision to charge pilots extra to be able to read data from a key sensor used by an anti-stall system in the 737 MAX 8 is a classic example of covert price discrimination. The cost of enabling pilots to read data off the sensor was apprently near zero, but Boeing charged airlines thousands of dollars for that option in order to coax airlines with a higher willingness to pay to pay more for a 737 MAX 8. Predictably, budget airlines, like Lion Air, whose 737 MAX 8 crashed on takeoff, possibly because pilots could not read data off of the sensor, and therefore did not know that the plane’s anti-stall system was malfunctioning, did not choose that option.

If America had a general price regulator — an administrative agency responsible for approving the prices charged by large American businesses, including Boeing — then that regulator would be able to tell us today whether Boeing really needed to price discriminate in order to cover overhead, and therefore whether the high price Boeing charged for that safety option really was justified by its costs. Or whether Boeing’s price discrimination amounted to the charging of above-cost prices — prices that redistribute wealth from consumers to firms, not because the extra wealth is required to make the firm ready, willing, and able to produce, not because the extra wealth is necessary to give investors a reasonable return on their investment, but simply because Boeing, as a member of a two-firm global airplane production duopoly (along with Airbus), had the market power to raise price. And because Boeing thought it had more of a right to airline profits — and ultimately to the hard-earned cash of consumers — than do the airlines that buy planes from Boeing and the consumers that fly on them. If it turns out that the safety option was priced higher to extract monopoly profits from consumers, rather than to cover overhead, then we have in Boeing an example of how market power can inflict not just harm on the pocketbook, but actually take lives.

The existence of a general price regulator would have allowed us to pass judgment on Boeing, because what price regulators do is to extract information from big businesses about their costs, including overhead, and based on that to determine whether these firms need to engage in price discrimination to survive, and if so, how much price discrimination is required to cover costs. Regulators then approve price discrimination — called “demand-based pricing” in regulator-speak — if it is needed to cover costs, and reject it where it amounts to no more than an exercise of monopoly power.

Because we have no price regulation of airline production, we simply have no way of telling for sure what Boeing was doing when it decided to charge more for the safety option.

Indeed, the advantage of having a rate regulatory agency goes deeper than just ensuring that firms deploy price discrimination only when it is absolutely necessary to cover costs. Rate regulators have a long history of using their power to approve prices to insist that firms structure their covert price discrimination in a way that is maximally beneficial to consumers. That includes insisting that when firms break their products into base models and sets of options, they do so with a view to safety. Indeed, one of the great benefits of rate regulation is government say over what constitutes an acceptable product. When the airlines were regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board, for example, the regulator insisted that the airlines maximize the number of direct flights they offer, with the result that today’s layover hell was largely unknown to mid-century fliers.

Boeing has an incentive to make safety features optional, because high willingness-to-pay airlines are more likely to cough up for safety options. But the extra profits that go to Boeing from being able to price discriminate against wealthy airlines come at the cost of delivery of unsafe planes to budget carriers. A rate regulator might well have insisted that that Boeing’s definition of a base aircraft model include far more safety features than it does today.

Of course, the Federal Aviation Administration, which has authority over flight safety, could have mandated that airlines purchase the optional safety features, but chose not to do so. But a rate regulator would have added an additional regulatory safety net, making it possible to stop dangerous pricing at the source — when the prices are chosen — rather than when airlines make decisions about which options to buy, as the FAA would have done.

Given that aircraft manufacturing prices are not regulated today, is our only option to throw up our hands in despair? No. We can still at least get to the bottom of the question whether Boeing priced that option as an exercise of monopoly power, or out of a need to cover costs, through the unlikely vehicle of the antitrust laws. I have argued that the Sherman Act should be read to provide a right of action to any buyer to sue for a judicial termination whether a firm is charging above-cost, and therefore unnecessarily high, prices.

Now would be the perfect time for the world’s airlines to bring that antitrust case.