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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nickeled and Dimed

On July 18 the New York Times ran an article on the pros and cons of "cafeteria" pricing for coach airfares. You know, those beguiling palm-fringed ads for cheap flights that morph, by the time you've "chosen" to pay for "extras" like checked (or in some cases carry-on) baggage, water and toilet paper, into less-alluring deals.

This fee structure has been lauded for giving customers the freedom to choose only those services for which they want to pay. It's hard to fault that argument, and perhaps I'm just revealing myself to be a dinosaur (maybe pterodactyl is a better metaphor) by my struggle to abandon the notion that little comforts and amenities like pillows, blankets and luggage transport are as inherent and non-negotiable a part of the flying experience as jet fuel and landing gear.

I now imagine Michael O'Leary, CEO of the legendarily "no-frills" Ryanair, thinking "Hmmm, jet fuel. Perhaps the flight attendants should pass the hat up and down the aisles a few times before takeoff. If enough passengers kick in, the pilot will fire up BOTH engines!"

But I digress.

The Times article noted that in a recent poll of air travelers 16 percent of respondents said they would pay extra to be first off the plane.

I'd pay extra to be first off the bus, or first in line at the discount lingerie bin at the start of Nordstrom's half-yearly sale, but that doesn't mean it's right. The problem with the airlines' ever-growing list of fee-based "amenities" is that they further separate the "haves" from the "have-nots."

Of course air travel itself is hardly one of life's necessities, and the world has far more pressing problems than whether Delta should charge for blankets. Airlines, like ocean liners, have a long and glorious tradition of charging extra for services. It's always been possible to pay double or triple the coach fare for the privilege of turning left when boarding the plane, to swill Champagne in an airborne BarcaLounger while the masses behind the curtain jostle for the armrests.

But the coach experience used to shared equally by all. The thrifty business traveler, the young family and the backpacking student had the same chances at a window or aisle seat, overhead bin space, exit-row legroom and boarding priority. Some flights you won,some you lost. But everyone was in the same boat, or plane.

Today, with the opportunity to buy your way ahead of fellow slightly-less-flush coach passengers, the creeping class-stratification of American life is reaching into Economy. Travel, even its vicissitudes, should be something that brings people together. An airfare policy encouraging cash competition for basic amenities at the expense of one's seatmate, seems like abandonment of a fundamental business commitment to provide a quality experience for all customers.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to spread my leathery wings and turn my long, pointed head back home.

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