Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fee for your thought?

I've got fees on my mind lately. The news that United Airlines is going to start charging $50 to check two bags certainly struck me as indicative of the whole problem.

It's really this: calling something a "fee" is only legitimate in two circumstances. The first is when it is passing through a charge from a 3rd party. The Sept. 11 security fees on airline tickets, or the service charge to buy a ticket from Expedia or Travelocity would fall in this category. The second is when the fee is charged for a discrete or incremental (and presumably optional) service. Examples here include a corkage fee for bringing your own bottle of wine to a restaurant, or a surcharge for 2nd-day delivery of a package.

Sadly, though, we're seeing a proliferation of all sorts of "fees" that meet neither of these criteria and which are, in my opinion, downright fraudulent and deceptive.

My favorite example of abusive "fees" charged to customers is the "fuel surcharge" that we're seeing applied not only to airline tickets, but also to many other everyday services. Don't get me wrong - with the high cost of fuel, businesses that are fuel dependent need to recover their costs, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with raising prices to do so. But companies are simply t insulting their customers by pretending that this is some "fee". It isn't - it's simply raising prices, but it's fraudulent because it let's the company pretend that they're not actually raising prices (after all, the advertised airfare is unchanged) when, of course, they are. Fuel is critical to the act of flying an airplane. It isn't as though passengers can opt out of using the fuel to get to their destination. The fuel for a flight is part and parcel of the cost of operating the flight. When you are spending $500 on an airline ticket, $200 (or probably more) is going to fuel costs anyhow; what is it about the $20 covered by the "fuel surcharge" that makes it different? Why not simply call this a $300 fare with a $200 fuel surcharge? Calling out a fuel surcharge is like buying bread with a separate "wheat surcharge." If it's an integral part of the cost of the product or service, then there is no excuse for arbitrarily excluding parts of that cost because they make the resulting price inconveniently high. It is an act of deception.

My other favorite example in this vein is the increasing number of hotels that tack on exorbitant "resort fees" for each night of a stay. I would have no problem with this if the fee were tied to usage of "resort facilities" (however defined), but I have yet to see a hotel that actually let you opt out of services as a way to bypass the fee. Wheat in bread.

Which brings me back to the United Airlines baggage policy. As a customer, I'm not wild about the policy, but I can see why they do it, and at least it's honest: you don't have to pay the fee if you don't use the incremental service to which it's tied. Interestingly, United justified the fee by saying that all passengers pay for baggage service in their ticket prices today, but only one in four passengers check two bags, so now they can pay for the incremental cost. This justification would work if they were actually going to call out baggage services as a discrete fee, separate from ticket prices altogether, but they aren't actually doing that.

I actually think that airlines, hotels, and others would be very well served by doing two things: first, break everything out into true a-la-carte pricing. For an airline, this would mean publishing a base fare. Want a better seat? $20 more. Refundable or changeable? $100. Want to check a bag? $25 per bag. Want early boarding? $5. Peanuts and soda? $5. Lobster? $100. Let people create the right options for what they want.

And then create simple packages (discounted, of course, relative to the a-la carte sum total) to provide an incentive for these upgrades. "First class" means you get all of the above options, but anybody who doesn't want all of "first class" could pick and choose what they did want. Maybe there aren't any more first class seats on the airplane, but how hard would it be to load a few more first class meals and extra wine for the folks in coach that are willing to pay for it? This turns a cost-center into a profit center.

Hotels could do the same thing, and for many hotels that have a mix of business customers (who may not make much use of the "resort amenities") and leisure customers that may make sense. But I 'd suggest that hotels would have more luck going entirely in the packaged model: eliminate the damned resort fee and internet access fees and all of that, raise the base room rates by the right amount to cover these costs (and then some), and make it all inclusive, straightforward pricing. Personally, I hate splurging for a hotel that charges $450 a night and find that they want another $16/day for Internet access. As irrational as it sounds, I'd rather spend $500 a night and have it all included, with no nickel and diming. But at least the Internet access is legitimate to break out if the hotel decides to do so - if I don't like the cost, I can choose to forego it (and often do). It's the "resort fee", which I have no way of avoiding, that I find so insulting and disrespectful.

Successful businesses show their customers they care. Hmmm....I guess I shouldn't be surprised to see airlines embracing bogus "fees", should I?

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