I’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.