The Upgrades That Make You Feel Worse

airplaneseats.jpgI’ve been on a lot of airplanes recently. Flying isn’t much fun, but I like being in other places. So in the process of travel I tend to see those around me as either obstacles to my getting where I need to go, or neutral (other passengers) or helpful (hopefully, airline personnel).

Airlines have been having a bad year, and they’ve cut back flights and amenities, so traveling this summer has been more difficult. But there’s something else that’s made it worse. One gets the feeling that some airlines are working against their passengers having a good experience. That’s not true, of course. But it often seems so.

Want to check a bag? There’s an extra fee. Want a seat with decent leg room? Another fee. A window or aisle seat? Fee. Hungry? Now you pay for the bad snacks.

I’m not opposed to paying for extra service. If you told me that the price of a ticket from Seattle to LA was established at $300, then gave me the opportunity to upgrade various services, I’d be fine with it. But there are no set fares. Every time I go, the price is different. Sometimes it’s $469. Sometimes $269. And then you want me to pay extra fees for checking a bag or getting a decent amount of leg room? It feels more like a penalty fee than an upgrade. And charging for checking bags now ensures that the aisles and bins are jammed with passenger luggage that ought to have been stowed below. So the bag fee results in degrading every passenger’s experience.

While many airlines now impose these fees, United seems to be the most aggressive. Riding United is now an unpleasant experience not because their service is so much worse than other airlines, but because you feel that their fee policies are punitive and designed to make your experience more arduous, not less.

Something similar has happened to frequent flier programs. It’s obvious that airlines want to make it more difficult to take advantage of the rewards. For example, technically it’s possible to track every passenger and add their frequent flier numer automatically when they book. But they don’t. And if for some reason your number didn’t get added to your ticket, it’s difficult to get it added after the fact. Let’s leave aside that the number of available award seats on flights is tiny. But on Northwest, there’s a hefty “booking” fee (it can be $150 a ticket) that bears no relationship to the cost of processing the booking and that hardly makes the award travel free. What ought to feel like a reward for being a loyal customer is turned into a hard-won rebate you had to work/fight for.

Then there are the expensive hotels that charge you for every little thing. Internet is $14.95. Bottle of water on the nightstand is $8. Why is it that good basic budget hotels provide free wi-fi, free water and breakfast but the hotels charging premium freight consider it a license to gouge you for more?

Upgrades and premium services are great ways to incentivize customers, but airlines have neutralized their incentive programs. In fact, these policies incentivize customers to feel resentful about the service they are not receiving or now have to pay for.

Last year I was given membership in a premium VIP ticket holders’ club  at a local theatre in return for a talk a gave. VIPers get a private entrance to the theatre (very cool), a club room that offers food, and special premium seats in the first balcony. All of this for a considerable premium over the ticket price.

Here’s how it was implemented, though. The private club room was a dark converted storage room in the basement. There were a few grapes and a slab of cheese from Costco spread out on a table, and the (cheap) wine was overpriced. The seats were two distant floors away, so there was a breathless dash before the curtain went up. The seats were completely unremarkable, indistinguishable from regularly-priced seats. Rather than feeling like we were treated special because we were part of this “premium” club, we left feeling like the theatre had used the “club” as a way to wring more revenue out of us. And the theatre staff wonders why it doesn’t have more takers.

So what is really the point of these programs? Companies spend lots of money to try to convince you they have your comfort/interests at heart. Then they penalize/inconvenience you all the while trying to convince you they’re rewarding you in some way. Uh huh.

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  1. says

    Doug, once again, you speak for many of us.
    Ticket buyers are people, and people have reactions to their experiences. They know when they are being had, and when they are being thanked.
    As the old saying goes: screw me once shame on you, screw me twice, shame on me.
    I have two old passports with extra pages added to handle all the traveling I used to do. I hardly fly anymore. It has become that intolerable.
    And don't get me started on the seat you get for $50 or $100 in a regional theatre compared to the nearest multiplex. Amenities count.

  2. Catrina Logan Boisso says

    It is indeed ironic that many of these programs go by names like Loyalty and Rewards. Loyalty implies a relationship – one based on trust, commitment and gratitude. The problem is that many of the companies offering Loyalty programs want our trust, commitment and gratitude, but they are loathe to reciprocate. Sounds like a pretty one sided, and ultimately unfulfilling, relationship! And as Doug points out, far too often rewards based on redemption of points feel like nothing more than cold, hard (and I do mean hard) transactions – where’s the element of surprise and delight that will remind me why I love your brand. The final insult? –a Loyalty program that requires me to remind you who I am. Aren’t you supposed to recognize your friends when they call (or fly)?
    Like airlines, arts organizations have the opportunity to capture a wealth of customer information. We know what kind of performances our patrons most often attend, where they sit in our theaters, how long they have been donating or purchasing. Are we taking advantage of that opportunity? Are we using the information we capture to benefit not just us, but also our customers? At NJPAC we’re trying. It’s not always easy, but the rewards are real.

  3. Woody Tanaka says

    I think you forgot the first and only rule with dealing with anyone involved in commerce: they are trying to screw you. In any way they can, for as much as they can. Make no mistake, if they could, every single person in business today (not employees, mind you, but business owners/management) would love to give you nothing in exchange for all the money you have and all that you can borrow. They will use every trick and deceit that is legal (and sometimes ones that aren't) to accomplish this end, including describing crap as gold. Remember that that is their goal, and that they will try to get as close as that as possible, in every transaction with them, and you will be okay.

  4. says

    You have absolutely NO IDEA what being “taken for a ride” by an airline is untill you fly Ryanair! A budget Irish airline They offer the cheapest fares and then proceed to blatantly penalise you for every little transgression! A fare that started out at $50 could easily end up costing you four times as much. There is also often no way around not paying the penalty if you wish to fly. I don`t think you can top the fact that they want to introduce a pay to pee on the plane, I kid you not!

  5. don schoenbaum says

    Your article is from 8/27/2009. I’m flying to Minneapolis on 8/27/2011. Having flown often in the last two years as I’m sure you have you know that the flying experience is much worse than it was.

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