Thursday, August 7, 2008

$7 For A Friggin' Pillow? Are You Kiddin' Me?

I travel a lot with The Day Job, and this travel more times than not means flying. Personally, I actually enjoy flying far more than driving, and don't even really mind the whole hustle and bustle of going through security. Have there been moments when I've wanted to pull a Sprewell on some smarmy flight attendant? Sure. But overall, flying is something I enjoy, and oddly enough, a part of the whole "travelling consultant" thing that I actually look forward to. I'm just weird like that.

That said, the current economic situation with most domestic airlines has been lost on me because when I travel (even for leisure), it's typically on Southwest. My co-workers used to pick at me incessantly for flying on a budget airline when it's not even my money being spent, but honestly, any flight that takes off and lands successfully is a good one. And who the heck cares if you get a free box lunch anyway? Boxed lunches are for middle schoolers and losers. So, SWA it is.

I didn't even realize how much the other carriers were struggling until I recently flew some other airline (I forget which one) to Beantown, and was extorted into required to pay $25 (not my money, but still, it's the principalities[1]) to merely check a bag. Not an extra bag, mind you, but merely a bag. $25! For a bag.

Turns out that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Curse you, Jet Blue. That, at least, has been the flying public's response to news that the airline has found another long-taken-for-granted amenity and started charging for it. Passengers who want to curl up with a blanket and pillow on their cross-country Jet Blue flight now have to pay $7.

But it's hardly a surprising move. All the airlines are struggling under soaring fuel costs (United alone says it will pay an extra $3.5 billion for gas this year) and looking for other places to make up the revenue, so they don't have to raise fares any higher. Free meals have largely become a relic of flying's more glamorous past; most of the airlines now charge for checked luggage; and many have, more quietly, raised the fees they charge for making a change to your nonrefundable ticket.

USAirways, which just last Friday became the first airline to start charging for soft drinks, says such fees will bring in $400 million to $500 million a year. "Customers understand the cost of doing business with these fuel prices," says USAirways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr. "They don't expect a free hot dog at the ballpark."
"They don't expect a free hot dog at the ballpark?" Is this Michelle Mohr chick serious? I've been known for bungling sports analogies myself, but they again, I'm not somebody's paid spokes(wo)man either.

Get your mind right, Michelle.

Ya'll might think I'm kidding here, but how long will it be before they start charging you to use the restroom? If you think that sounds absurd, then you obviously didn't grow up in the South, where KMart and Roses discount stores used to regularly charge 25-75 cents to use a coin operated toilet stall. I so wish I was making this up.[2]

I guess this incessant price gouging is really just a sign of the times. America's New Favorite Pastime is bitching about how overpriced things are. And yours truly, much to AverageSis' chagrin, is no exception. Everywhere from the gym locker room, to the barbershop (more on that later), to church, the economy, specifically inflation, is all everyone talks about. Stuff costs more, but people aren't necessarily making enough to compensate for stuff costing more, and as a result, stuff ends up costing even more.

I heard they're even considering pulling the double cheeseburger from McDonald's Dollar Menu because (get this) the two slices of cheese cost too much to make the sandwich profitable anymore. Of course this is complete crap. Anyone who's read anything knows McDonalds makes it money from soft drinks, which have an insanely large profit margin. I guess this is some divine message that we shouldn't be eating this crap anyway, but I digress.

If nothing else, this whole impending collapse (and inevitable gov't bailout) is the airline industry has me wondering exactly why Southwest's competitors can't copy some of their business plan? Think about it, you have an industry where literally everyone else is hemorrhaging cash, yet Southwest continues to turn a profit. What exactly are they doing that the others can't seem to figure out?

To the best of my knowledge, Southwest mainly succeeds by flying out of secondary airports (ie: Midway, not O'Hare), keeping their routes short, and their fares low. I'm at a total and complete lack of understanding why the CEOs of Delta, Northwest, Continental, et al can't simply copy this same business model and get paid themselves. Seriously, how hard is it to succeed if you just copy those who are already successful?

Could one of my MBA wielding members of AverageNation™ break this one down for me?

Anyways, I wish the other airlines luck. They will prolly need it. And I guess in some very small way I feel vindicated for flying Southwest.

Question: Do you fly regularly? At what point does charging for nitpicky stuff like pillows and soda pop become a total and complete turnoff? If you're business savvy, please explain why the other airlines can't simply copy SWA's recipe for success.

Airline Fees: Who's the Stingiest? [Time]

McDonald's may yank double cheeseburger from Dollar Menu over costs [NY Daily News]

[1] Name the infamous hood movie character who was all about "the principalities".

[2] Please tell me I'm not the only one that remembers coin operated toilets.

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