Is Airline Service a Sham?

By | March 15, 2009
CHICAGO - APRIL 09:  Passengers wait in line t...
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Michael Russnow over at the Huffington Post commented today that airline service is a sham. He maintains that first was a fee for a second bag, then a first, then for drinks on US Airways(which they recently reversed), then blankets and pillows, and movies. We’re not sure we agree with the way he describes it, and we’ve made our position on fees clear in that some things can no longer be provided free, but we object to continual nickel and diming of charges as well, and a baseline must be established.

Russnow goes on about the devaluation of frequent flier miles, which is a significant issue. Mileage is a big business, as partnerships with credit card companies and transfer agreements with other airlines, hotels, etc. there are too many miles and airlines are giving away fewer seats at higher rates, devaluing them. Certainly a good point, and one many of us are annoyed about.

But, where Mr. Russnow is wrong is here:

“Or better yet, as I suggested in a column last year just charge a few dollars more to return service to what it was before and no one would really notice the boost. Most people know fares go up and down like the stock market, and the person sitting next to you rarely pays the same fare.”

History and common sense proves him wrong on this. Passengers look at ticket price to the exclusion of everything else. In 2000, American Airlines unveiled a program to remove 6.4 percent of its coach seats to guarantee a greater than industry average pitch. It was recalled in 2004, when they added the row back after significant operating losses  Of course, that may be indicative of the time period in question. Other airline initiatives have not been 100% successful. Why did JetBlue remove a row of seats to offer more room? So they could remove a flight attendant with it and save money that way while benefitting the customer in a different way.

Perhaps Mr. Russnow has not noticed the downturn in the economy? Fuel has gone down, but many airlines hedged their fuel at a higher rate and are locked into paying more than market for it. People are nervous about flying and not booking the way they used to. Airlines are slashing capacity and parking planes in the desert. That is no excuse for bad service, but it does explain why these fees aren’t going away. The problems were there long before fuel.

Flying used to be classy. Remember the scene in Catch Me if You Can when Leo DiCaprio had all those glamorous stewardesses on his arms?

Look around you the next time you fly, and with the dearth of service you’ll see it’s more like riding a Greyhound bus.

We can’t say we disagree with him that the free perks have gone down, and we’re disappointed as well. But remember what we said on the subject of fares in a previous post

“In 1962, a plane could get one from New York to LA in roughly the same time as today for $290.62, which is around $2000 in today’s dollars. At those prices, service could be wonderful. Unless people today are willing to pay more for better service and vote with their wallet, things will stay the way they are. We would love to see airlines competing on both price and service….Continental has tried this, with their ad campaign featuring all the things they have kept that other airlines have cut.”

Mr. Russnow may be a Professional TV/Screenwriter, former Writers Guild west Member of the Board of Directors and former U.S. Senate aide, but he clearly doesn’t have a full view of the airline industry. Perhaps we don’t either, to be fair.

We expect someone to come up with a minimum baseline for air service. We foolishly expect that to be the government. For us, a baseline is one checked piece of luggage at less than 50 pounds, unlimited water, and food, accommodation, and compensation provided if your delay is in excess of a certain number of hours. The European Union has better compensation  regulations than we do. Shouldn’t we at least be on part with them, even if airlines regularly ignore it? Mr. Russnow should try flying in Europe on a discount airline if he thinks the US carriers look like Greyhound.

Beyond that, the days of free everything are gone. Free pillows and blankets were hardly quality merchandise. Alcohol on a plane is a powderkeg waiting to go off so why should airlines offer that for free. Free meals are nice, but people still complain about their quality. We like our bag of peanuts/pretzels, but we will deal.

We continue to feel that once things start to get better in the economy, and people have more discretionary income, one or more airlines will start trying to compete on service…but some things are just gone and aren’t coming back.

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