Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Squeeze 'em until it hurts: The hostile takeover of the average air traveller experience

     I love almost everything about a life with lots of travel in it. But the modern-day airport and flying experience is one notable exception.
     I’m just back from flights in and out of Orlando, Florida, where I went for two weeks to visit family. I've been travelling quite a bit these past five years, and what becomes clearer with each passing flight is that the air industry service model is to slowly increase our suffering to the point that we'll pay them to make it stop.
    While I admire how the industry whips us around the world with impressive efficiency, its view of us as widgets to be profited from rather than flesh-and-blood customers is becoming increasingly transparent.
     I get that it’s a tough management challenge to safely move so many people to so many destinations every day. Some 3.5 billion travellers passed through the world’s airports in 2015. But that hardly justifies a business model built on the concept of deliberately eroding basic customer service so that your customers eventually feel miserable enough to pay for what they once got for free.
     Whether it’s about shivering in a sub-zero economy cabin or paying $25 each way just to check your only bag, I can’t shake this feeling that rather than being motivated by the desire to provide me with the optimal customer experience, what actually motivates the industry is discovering new ways to make me into a more efficient and profitable widget. Even the once largely democratic act of boarding the plane has been turned into a profit-making vehicle, with the industry constantly introducing new ways to lure travellers into paying to jump the line.
     A quick review of the typical airport experience based on my August 29 and September 12 flights, to make my case:
·        Uncomfortable seats. Your butt’s going to hurt, your legs are going to twitch, and your arms are going to cramp from trying to keep yourself from touching the passenger next to you. Unless you’re willing to pay for a better seat – what we long-time flyers used to know as “normal” leg room has now become a premium to be paid for – expect to feel cramped, jostled, and forced into unpleasant intimacies with strangers. If money’s no object, you might buy yourself one of those really great seats that the rest of us can only gaze upon longingly on the way to steerage, where everybody enjoys roomy lazy-boys and quaffs free booze and warm almonds. But most of us non-rich people tend to opt for the suffering. Yes, theatres and arenas also charge a price for premium seats, but for me it’s the physical discomfort of the cheap seats that really distinguishes the airline industry in this category.

·         Unfair baggage policies. Once, you could check two bags for free. Then one. Now, none. I just paid $50 so that my one bag could accompany me to Orlando and back. And then you sit in the cabin watching people stuffing increasingly enormous and ludicrous “carry-on” bags into those weary looking overhead bins, and a thinking person such as myself just might go, hey, WTF, does the industry truly not see how unpleasant they’re making it for us just to carry our stuff while we travel?

·         Food. Not even a decade ago, the airline industries fed you a meal at mealtime. It wasn’t a particularly terrific meal, but it was OK, and even came with a little bottle of wine if it was dinner. Oh, I laugh ruefully at the memory. Most of the airlines won’t even toss you a bag of bad pretzels anymore without charging, and those little bottles of wine are now $7. Not surprisingly, travellers responded by buying their own food in the airport to bring on the plane, but I now see that airport vendors have rather strangely countered this development by jacking up the price on anything that can be carried easily on a plane. I realized during this trip that at $12 and $14, airport sandwiches are now so costly that it makes more sense to buy a $7 sandwich on the plane. How clever – they've made me into a widget who will not only buy a $7 chicken wrap on the plane, but feel grateful for the chance. I wouldn’t want to suggest collusion between the airport and the airlines, but it sure looks that way from a customer perspective.

·         Security lineups. I know, we’ve all got a million anecdotes about this one, but it’s the big picture that gets me (that and the crazy lineups that screw up everything about the airport experience, including how much time you have to buy an exploitively priced sandwich). I mean, look at us: Taking off our shoes, belts and jackets; worrying whether we’ve got any trace of metal somewhere on our person; extracting our laptops to put them in bins; carrying only teeny-tiny bottles of creams and lotions in our carry-ons; shuffling through the naked x-ray machine without a word of complaint. Complaint, after all, just might get you sent into the back room with the scary looking dude wearing the latex gloves. It’s gotten so unpleasant that I’m now exploring the various pre-approved options for passing through security – which, of course, I will have to pay for. I can practically feel the industry using our largely baseless fears of security risks to reshape us as compliant widgets happy to pay for premium services if it means we get to skip at least some of the waits and humiliation.

·         In-flight entertainment. Let’s just say I was overjoyed to discover free movies and TV on both Air Canada flights to and from Toronto on my way south, but that’s not a common experience. I don’t want to romanticize the days when small, bad TVs dropped from the plane ceiling and you watched whatever the airline was showing that day, but there are fewer and fewer flights that provide any entertainment at all unless you pay for it. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, because bringing a good book is still free, but it still exemplifies the way airlines have found ways to package basic customer service as something you now have to pay for.

·         Cold. Freezing, freezing cold. The guy across the aisle from me was wearing one of those “slankets” yesterday to ward off the sub-zero chill and I was dead-envious. Sure, it’s minus-59 C. outside at 35,000 feet (Really. I saw it on the free TV screen.) but you can bet those high rollers in the comfy seats aren’t having to wrap themselves in fleece. Should you want one of those thin, small blankets of unpleasant material that the airlines used to provide for free, you now have to pay for it.

     I could go on. If there isn’t already a business-economics case study on the airline industry’s mastery at wringing profit out of what was once basic customer service, there ought to be. It’s not only a triumph of capitalism, it’s an example of how an industry can deliberately worsen the experience for their customers and not only get them to go along with it, but happily paying to stop the torment.
     Pack your slankets and homemade sandwiches, kids. They’re taking us for a ride.