Airline Travel: We just Expect Too Much
My idea of a good time is to recline on the couch and a watch a news report (with video) depicting thousands of hapless holiday air travelers stuck in some major airport because a freak snow storm hammered half the continent. I can then smugly congratulate myself on having the foresight to avoid holiday travel. Except…last week, I had no choice. The publishing schedule required a short trip to the Midwest three days before Christmas. I got lucky on the weather; no snow.
Driving to my first appointment, I heard this ridiculous news segment in which some airline industry shill tried to explain the public's disdain for air travel as a result of passengers expecting too much. You know, things like a reserved seat, room for your baggage, no hidden fees on fares and "value-added" services, service with a smile rather than a snarl. That sort of stuff. He offered meal service as an example, noting that anyone starting an airline today would never think of offering free food. When he tried to segue that moronic logic into explaining why you similarly shouldn't expect free baggage space, an honest fare structure or maybe a lousy bag of pretzels, his blame-the-customer strategy ran off the rails.
This caused me think through my own attitudes toward commercial air travel which are basically neutral to slightly positive. I think the airlines do a reasonable job of getting people to their destinations on time and they have an exceptional safety record. These days, I simply tune out the TSA hassle, so my view of the cost/value for the service is basically positive. (I'm in the minority on that count.) I paid more in fares for this trip than I did a year ago, and as I've said before, I'm good with that. But I do find it odd that some airlines seem never to miss an opportunity to irritate their customers.
Leaving Kansas City for Charlotte, the airplane was clearly full if not overbooked. The gate agent was pleading with passengers to check some of their carry-on baggage, offering to do this at no charge. (Such a deal.) She was getting no takers, virtually guaranteeing forced bag checking in the midst of enplaning and thus delaying departure, forcing more delays further downstream and aggravating everyone. That's exactly what happened. If there were no bag charges, chances are, the 14 checked carry-ons the agent was asking for would have been already in the baggage hold—just like it used to be.
While this fiasco was developing, I asked myself why I wasn't checking my own roll aboard. Normally, I'm big on minor courtesies that pay dividends not just for me, but for others. I had several good reasons, all of which relate to disincentives the airline built in. First, I'd have to open the bag up, remove several thousand dollars worth of video gear and stick it into my backpack, then repack it. All because the airline maintains the right to lose or damage your baggage without readily paying you for your loss. In other words, the airline has little incentive to deliver good baggage service while I have a strong incentive not to let them try. It's true that maximum payments for lost or damaged luggage have been doubled recently, but these payments are negotiable and ask anyone who has filed a claim if the process was satisfactory.
Coming into Kansas City the night before, I found myself stuffed into a regional jet. Honestly, I think I'd rather drive. These things can't be stamped back into beer cans soon enough to suit me. On that flight, which arrived two hours late at midnight, all the bags were checked, but for some reason, it took the airline 40 minutes to unload them. They didn't do the usual pick-it-up in the jetway, but flowed the bags through the airport carrousel at the rate of about two a minute.
Disincentive number three related to freedom of the commons. Normally, I'm predisposed to do my share to help the common good because I believe that the common good usually benefits my own good. But not this time. For reasons related to convenience, baggage fees or some things ineffable, this group of passengers were voting with their butts and so was I. In fact, the entire episode was a sort of sociological study in mass behavior--how people will make decisions against their wider interest just to avoid helping an entity they despise. (The airline.)
All of which is to say once again that the airlines clever unbundling of fares may or may not be improving their bottom lines. If the former, it's doing so at the expense of continuing erosion of customer satisfaction. But, to hear the airline shill I mentioned above tell it, it's our own damn fault for expecting so much.