Sunday, June 08, 2008

More on Airline fees and a-la-carte pricing.

I've posted in the past about airline fees and my recommendations, and lo and behold American Airlines is now taking my advice...sort of.

I think I simply forgot about the fact that *how* you go about this matters as much as going about it. And American Airlines is doing it all wrong, and in the process showing that they hate their customers.

The problem is not that American is charging for checking the first bag. The problem is that they are treating this as a penalty, as a surcharge, as punishment.

Consider two scenarios:

Scenario A: American (or any other airline) announces that they are going "A la carte." Their message to their customers is simple: we're going to keep your cost as low as possible by only charging your for what you need. Our fares (which include fuel, for crying out loud!), are as low as we can make them; you can add to that the services that you want. Each service that you add, whether it is meal service, baggage service, or a cancel/change waiver, is a separate service that we will stand behind independently. Don't like the food you bought? Get your money back. Paid for your golf clubs but they were delayed? We'll rent you a set until we get your clubs to you. If you pay for it, we'll make sure it's right.

Scenario B: American says that you can buy a "low fare" for your flight, but at every turn, whenever you try to do something that a reasonable person might want to do or expect to be included, you have to pay a fee, about which you likely did not know in advance. And even if you pay the fee (for example to check a bag), you get no additional service guarantees with it, you simply take your chances (and you won't get a refund). In fact, you may suffer fees even if you do everything to avoid it, for example if you find that there is insufficient overhead space for your legitimate carry-on bag and are forced to check it. You probably would have been willing to pay more for a ticket that could be changed, but you were never offered any such option because you were simply shown "lowest fares" on the airline website or on travel agency sites such as Expedia or Travelocity, all of which are oriented towards the lowest sticker price possible.

Now I admit that my scenarios are hardly unbiased portraits, but that's because I am biased. Scenario A is McDonalds, where nobody complains about the fact that adding fries to a burger costs more than the burger alone. (And, of course, "value meals" are hardly precluded in this scenario.) Scenario B, which nickels-and-dimes customers is...well, the airlines.

Any legitimate company that seeks to provide value to their customers and make money in the process would naturally implement scenario A; companies that are out to make money however possible but don't give a damn about their customers in the process gravitate towards B as a "revenue optimization" model.

Airlines today are in a really tough spot, and I sympathize with them for that, but unfortunately most of them today are viewing their solution through a Scenario B lens. This is shortsighted on their part, and demonstrates that they simply do not understand their business and what it means to make money by providing value to customers.

Southwest Airlines comes the closest to implementing Scenario A. Southwest Airlines is the only US airline that has consistently made money over the nearly 100 year history of commercial aviation. Am I the only one who thinks that this might not be a coincidence?

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