Frugal Flying

Two widening passenger service philosophies are contrasting themselves daily. One declares that it is necessary to charge airline travelers for just about everything but breathing and using the restrooms. Count nearly all the major airlines, including Jet Blue in this category.

The other approach is championed by Southwest Airlines, which avoids the added charges, penalties and unilateral charges in fine-print agreements with their customers.

Why should you be surprised when you learn that Southwest has the overall best fares, most pleasant service, answers phones promptly with human beings, records more profits during the past eight years than all other major carriers combined and pays its CEO, and President the least of their CEO competitors?

Treating their customers as if they matter all the time means not treating them as ATM machines. This means that at Southwest you do not get charged $15 or more for checking bags, do not get charged $25 or more for using your “free” frequent-flier credits, do not get charged $150 for changing your tickets.

U.S. Airways has started charging $2 for bottled water and soft drinks. Not Southwest. The major airlines charge parents $100 one way for an unaccompanied child. Not Southwest.

Jet Blue is joining other airlines by charging for extra legroom. Not Southwest. Remember when a taller passenger bought a ticket, and his or her knees were part of the deal?

Jet Blue, which started out as a Southwest clone, has thrown in the towel and is adopting a strategy of protective imitation of Delta, American Airlines, Northwest and United Airlines. Jet Blue is even selling pillows and blankets.

High fuel prices and excess capacity are given as the two reasons for the barrage of charges—as for packaged snacks—or charging you more for buying tickets offline. Of course, irritating customers, bad service and poor employee practices do tend to result in more empty seats.

Moreover, the airline industry lobby took too long before it began directly and openly taking on the oil companies and Wall Street speculators.

From a consumer perspective, I find it astonishing how these “gotcha capitalists” (to use the title of Bob Sullivan’s recent book on the fee feasts) work overtime, with their bean counters, to alienate their passengers. They calculate their revenues from such fees without considering any loss of passenger patronage. They figure that people have no choice if all their competitors commit the same gouges.

Southwest stands alone among the majors as the marvelous maverick in the spirit of its beloved founder, Herb Kelleher, who just retired along with his ex-president Colleen Barrett. Higher costs are folded into the overall fare structure.

Will Gary Collins, the successor CEO of Southwest, uphold the same traditions of success? Only if his passengers stay alert to any slide. For now, Southwest’s slogan is “LUV is freedom from fees.”

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