An alternative to popular faith

3/15/10(AP) “Continental Airlines (will begin) a food-for-sale program . . . expects a $35 million annual benefit, from cost savings and added revenue. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, US Airways and United Airlines. . . already charge for food on flights . . . Air travelers have seen a steady erosion of amenities included in the price of their ticket . . . from checked bags to pillows and blankets on board. Airlines call it unbundling the product, allowing them to offer lower base fares . . . But with so many add-on fees these days, a traveler could end up paying more when everything is added . . . . Some travelers have been packing lighter or carrying more on board flights to avoid checked bag fees. Likewise, some bring their own food on flights to avoid paying for meals.”

Has Continental addressed its problems or exacerbated them? Here are what may be airlines’ three main problems:

1. Internet pricing, which makes comparison shopping easy, driving down prices to below break-even.

2. Lack of a competitive advantage. Each airline is perceived to be a travel commodity, no better or worse for getting you from point A to point B than any other airline.

3. Overall flying hassle. Airport parking is a costly hassle. Long wait in the check-in line, long wait in the security line (“and take off your shoes”), limited carry-on, long walk to your gate, long wait at your gate (so get there 2 hours early), claustrophobic planes with 6-to-an-aisle, claustrophobic smelly bathrooms, wait hours on the tarmac, no food, retrieve your baggage (it’s lost), drag your baggage out of the airport, find a taxi.

Does anyone ever say, “I really enjoy airplane travel” (vs. “I enjoy taking a cruise” or even I enjoy driving)? So what do the airlines do? They collude to make flying even less enjoyable.

Although cruise ships are not airplanes, perhaps some lessons can be learned from them. There are cheap cruises and expensive cruises, but most emphasize on-board fun and luxury, not just the locations you visit. Some will pay to get you from home to the dock. Some will meet you at the airport, take your luggage and handle security in the most pleasant way (“Welcome, Mrs. Jones, have a Mai Tai.”) Most don’t charge extra for food (often of gourmet quality) or entertainment. Some will take care of your touring and ground transportation.

Cruise ships focus on the travel experience. By contrast, airlines send a mixed message. They focus on price, then nickel and dime you to death. They are the only industry I know that deliberately makes their customers’ buying experience miserable.

Consider another industry suffering with Internet pricing: Automobiles. If they were airlines, they would charge you to walk through a long parking lot and sit in a gloomy showroom, elbow-to-elbow with a hundred other people, charge you for those 50,000 mile warranties and sell you an unwashed car with no gas. The salesperson would charge to show you how to operate the electronics. Yes, they offer options, but don’t take it to the extremes the airlines have (“Would you like windshield wipers or just a rag?”)

My local car dealer has free parking, a gorgeous, comfortable showroom; free breakfast and lunch to all customers, whenever they come in, free Internet, free TV, and free car washes any time – and he still has competitive pricing.

Airline executives lack creative thinking. Ever hear of an airline that picked you up at your door or paid for your parking? Helped you with your luggage? Shepherded you through security? Gave you a tram ride to your gate? Fed you or gave you a recliner to sit on while you waited? Helped you with advice, maps, reservations and transportation in your destination city?

They pay their executives big bucks, to have a follow-the-herd mentality. And in this, they are just like economists and politicians.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell