Booking a flight often conjures Proustian flashbacks of the unfriendly skies. Strip-searched pack mules queue up in front of exhausted middlemen staring at 30-year-old computer screens to cram into cubbyholes on tubes filled with fetid air and coffee breath and the screams of children who still have enough innocence to protest. This is the way the airline companies like it, because they make billions of dollars in fees when we pay to diminish these indignities.

This model of "calculated suffering" is the crux of a new piece for The New Yorker, written by Tim Wu. Last year, airline companies made nearly $32 billion in ancillary revenue [PDF] from bag fees, priority boarding charges, legroom extras, and other "upgrades" that used to be a part of competent service, a 1200% increase since 2007. It's like a restaurant charging for a "knife-use upgrade" or a guarantee against food poisoning.

Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

The necessity of degrading basic service provides a partial explanation for the fact that, in the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience….Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports who worked in the airline industry for many years, studied seat sizes and summarized his findings this way: “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

Fee models also lead most people to spend unwarranted time and energy calculating, agonizing, and repacking in the hope of avoiding paying more. The various fees make prices hard to compare, as a ticket can now represent just a fraction of the total expense. These are real costs, and they are compounded by ticketing practices, which demand perfect timing. When customers miscalculate their schedules or their plans change, the airline is ready with its punishment: the notorious two-hundred-dollar rebooking and change fee. Those change fees are particularly lucrative: in 2014, Delta and United are projected to collect nearly a billion dollars each. And the greater social cost comes from those who didn’t change their tickets even though they wanted to.

There is no incentive for the airlines to change their behavior, because consumers have no choice. JetBlue finally realized that treating flyers like human beings is a suckers game. The airline companies have merged into a limbed monolith (thanks, federal government). Gas prices are at historic lows? Fuck you, pay me.

Wu, a Columbia law professor who ran an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor, explained in an interview with Gothamist the challenges for lawmakers or anyone else who wants to stop the rising cost of basic human dignity:

The real challenge of government in the 21st century is making sure we're trying to figure out how we have more people’s pain and suffering heard. How is your average person’s life being affected? It’s very hard to get that to people when every day you’re dealing with your donors or your lobbyists, who are experts in making you feel their pain.