Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

NEXT UP: $5 PER LAVATORY VISIT....The latest from American Airlines:

AMR Corp. became the first U.S. carrier to make more moves to deal with still-surging fuel costs, announcing additional U.S. capacity cuts, the planned retirement of at least 75 aircraft and more fees — including charging some fliers $15 for their first checked bag.

....Becoming the first carrier to start charging some customers for the first checked bag — just several months after carriers began hitting some with fees on a second checked bag for the first time — American is raising a host of other fees by $5 to $50. They are estimated to generate several hundred million dollars a year.

Airlines have spent years trying to bully passengers into reducing their carry-on luggage — with TSA pitching in to help in recent years. Now that they've finally broken us (I finally caved in and started checking everything several years ago) they're going to charge us for checking luggage. Lovely.

I don't know anything about airline economics and obviously the American Airlines executive team does. Still, the kind of sleazy pricing practices they and the rest of the domestic industry are adopting, where advertised fares mysteriously rise 20% by the time you actually board the plane, seem like exactly the kind of thing designed to wreck their long-term business. People really don't like the feeling of being cheated and lied to. The industry's answer, I suppose, is that they have to survive in the short term in order for there to be a long term, and that's true enough. But if the problem is a secular, broad-based increase in fuel costs that hits everyone equally, I'm still a little stumped about why a blizzard of fees is supposed to be a better solution than simply raising prices a bit across the board.

Sadly, in a couple of days I'll be stepping onto an American Airlines flight to London. I sure hope they don't lose my checked luggage after charging me for the temerity of wanting a change of clothes on my trip. In the meantime, I think there's a niche somewhere for an airline that raises their prices a bit and runs blaring ads that announce "No Hidden Fees!" Or am I just dreaming?

Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (157)

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Comments

People have gotten pretty used to the concept of in-your-face attempts at deceptive pricing (19.99), where the manufacturer says "I hope you misread this as $10 instead of $20, and therefore are more likely to buy it than if you were thinking clearly about its cost. And I know you know I'm doing this - this underhanded trick is out on full display - but I'm going to do it anyway."

So I think you overestimate people's ability to summon outrage at sustained abuse.

Posted by: Ben V-L on May 21, 2008 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

While they are at it, perhaps your ideal airline could raise fees even more and advertise "No hidden fees! And we don't cut corners on safety inspection of our planes in order to save money!"

Has anyone actually looked into whether things we simply better before deregulation?

Posted by: anon on May 21, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

I think there defintely is a market for such an airline as well as one that gets you there on time.

I was gold or platinum on American for ten years until for the fifth time in 14 trips to Brazil they screwed me again. I haven't flown them since.

Posted by: Randy Paul on May 21, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

In the meantime, I think there's a niche somewhere for an airline that raises their prices a bit and runs blaring ads that announce "No Hidden Fees!" Or am I just dreaming?

You're not dreaming, you're totally delusional. Airlines have done a fair bit of consumer behavior research and have concluded that most people will go with the cheapest fare no matter what, even if it only saves them a few dollars and even if it makes them significantly more uncomfortable.

Disclaimer: I work for the company that builds the engine used for a lot of the low-fare searches done at places like Orbitz or airline web sites.

Posted by: on May 21, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

In the meantime, I think there's a niche somewhere for an airline that raises their prices a bit and runs blaring ads that announce "No Hidden Fees!" Or am I just dreaming?

You're not dreaming, you're totally delusional. Airlines have done a fair bit of consumer behavior research and have concluded that most people will go with the cheapest fare no matter what, even if it only saves them a few dollars and even if it makes them significantly more uncomfortable.

Disclaimer: I work for the company that builds the engine used for a lot of the low-fare searches done at places like Orbitz or airline web sites.

Posted by: Turbulence on May 21, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

$5 to use the lavatory? I presume that is only for number 1. I would expect number 2 to cost significantly more.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 21, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

Heck, they should just weigh someone plus all of their baggage, carry-on or checked. Net weight up to 300 pounds included with the ticket. If you and your bags weigh more than 500 pounds, then tough luck, fat ass.

Posted by: Anthony on May 21, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

I imagine that the reason we see all this fee nickel-and-diming is that if they included everything in the upfront price then the sticker shock would scare off business.

Airline travel is going to become more and more of an upscale-only item as the price of fossil fuels rises. Time to bring back trains.

Posted by: jimBOB on May 21, 2008 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

"Sadly, in a couple of days I'll be stepping onto an American Airlines flight to London."

WTF use a U.S. carrier to London when you could have flown Virgin or British Airways or KLM or any number of European carriers? [Unless it's a frequent-flier thing.]

Personally, I can't wait for the European and Asian carriers to drive Urinated Airlines and the rest out of business.

Posted by: Sock Puppet of the Great Satan on May 21, 2008 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Also, it's a proven psychological fact that people are more inclined to buy something that is $225 plus $75 in fees rather than $300 flat, even though they know they pay the same amount in either case. They might even be more willing to pay 225+75 rather than 290.

Posted by: Anthony on May 21, 2008 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't flown American since they totally screwed up a vacation of ours ten years ago. Our connecting flight was late and even though we arrived at the gate of our American flight 15 minutes before departure they refused to let us board (the plane was still sitting there at the gate). They did this knowing full well that the all the flights to our destination for the next two days were already overbooked and that denying us boarding would mean that we would have no chance whatsoever to get to our destination.

That said, all airlines are shooting themselves in the foot by trying to nickel and dime their passengers. People are simply going to change their vacation plans to minimize the need to fly. Airlines would be much better off simply raising prices across the board.

Posted by: mfw13 on May 21, 2008 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

If you're flying to London you can perhaps try some of the UK budget carriers (Ryanair, easyet) who have been doing this for a while. They advertise with incredibly low prices and claw back their profits one trick at a time. Doesn't seem to make them any less successful. Once you're standing in line for your flight you pretty much have to pay the little extras.

Posted by: John on May 21, 2008 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

To quote P.T. Barnum, "There is a sucker born every minute". People will line up like sheep to the slaughter to fly.

Personally, I would rather take the train. Reasonable pricing. Never in a hurry. Security nothing like the anal probing one gets at the airport by TSA. Big roomy seats too and a meal.

Posted by: Dgustof on May 21, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

I think crying babies should incur a $100 surcharge. On a plane, at a restaurant, in a movie theater. To patronize any of the three you leave a credit card number upon entry. Your baby starts bawling--BAM!!--your card gets slammed for 100 bucks. Just sayin'......

Posted by: steve duncan on May 21, 2008 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

The Reuters story says the first-bag fee won't apply to international flights, so Kevin is OK on that London flight, and I'm sure his bags will enjoy the free trip to Brazil.

Posted by: Rich on May 21, 2008 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

But using the lavatory doesn't add anything to the aircraft's gross weight. Although a new type of toilet could be designed to "eliminate" weight. They could describe it as overhead fertilization, and charge the folks in flyover country.

Posted by: thersites on May 21, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

"The industry's answer, I suppose, is that they have to survive in the short term"

No, the industry's answer is that you have no choice. You don't have three weeks to drive across the US and take a ship, if you can find one, or four months to row.

This is what the business world engagingly labels a "franchise." In the old days it was called "rent-seeking." It's the way cable TV works, and privatized utilities, and the soon-to-be-privatized turnpikes, and, they hope, everything else.

It isn't just the airlines.

Posted by: Altoid on May 21, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

jimBOB,

My wife and I are headed off to the Wiscon science fiction convention tomorrow. South Central Texas to Madison, Wisconsin. We tried to arrange travel by train rather than air and found that it was much more expensive.

We really don't like to fly anymore. If the train became price competitive we would never set foot on an airplane again.

Posted by: Stuart on May 21, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

If American wanted to please people and still increase charges, they could work a deal with TSA and offer an expedited departure service for passengers willing to pay more to escape the security kabuki play on the way to the plane. We'd be just as secure, and happy to pay extra to avoid the hassle and humiliation.

Posted by: jame on May 21, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin

Have a great time with your mum in our fair city.

The Routemaster (conductor) buses have ended but do buy yourself an Oyster prepaid card at a Tube station or newsagent (cost £3 plus whatever you charge it with, and you can recharge it at a newsagent or tube station), and enjoy the bus network. For 90p you can see the city on the cheap-- touch in and out on the Tube, and in (only) on the bus, on the yellow patches.

www.tfl.gov.uk has local bus maps (done like the famous Tube map) and they are immensely handy: download and printout before you go.

If your mum is at all infirm, the easy way from heathrow is the fast train to Paddingon (£16 if you buy your ticket before you board) and then a £12 cab ride (go off the platform and through the arches to the RIGHT side of the station as you face away from the platform) to any hotel. If you know the address of the hotel, the cabbie can find it.

The harder way is the Piccaddilly Tube Line, which is relatively cheap (£4.50 or so) but is slow and inconvenient at the other end.

Right now the weather is just about perfect (low 60s and sunny)-- we've had a rough winter, and it's very nice to see.

Of course, being England, you know it will shortly rain: you just don't whether that is in the next 3 days, or the next 3 minutes. Probably both. ;-). Marks and Spencers and Boots the Chemist both sell cheap folding umbrellas (aboutg £8-£10)

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 21, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

steve duncan: I think crying babies should incur a $100 surcharge.

I think that assholes should incur a $100 surcharge. You know, the kind of people that say crying babies should incur a surcharge.

P.S. I'm still up for the crying baby surcharge though, as long as it's applied retroactively. Wait until your parents get the bill.

Posted by: alex on May 21, 2008 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Valuethinker: do buy yourself an Oyster prepaid card at a Tube station or newsagent

The Tube is great, but when are they going to extend it to Orange County? (oh, heck, I'd settle for the East Coast).

Posted by: alex on May 21, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

I'm flying to Ireland this summer on Aer Lingus, and recently got an email offering a lower pre-pay fee for *each* checked bag. I prefer to travel carry-on only, so I'm hoping their 6-kilo-maximum on carry-on bags has been modified since I flew last year (oh yeah, and had my bag stay over an extra day on the way home)

Posted by: farmgirl on May 21, 2008 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

thersites,

Don't they already do that?

Posted by: Matt on May 21, 2008 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin wants the socialist system, to each according to the number of bags, from each that carries little baggage.

Kind of like the way he does global warming. If you want to burn airline fuel, no problem, global warmer inspectors will penalize the efficient.


Posted by: Matt on May 21, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Time to bring back open air long distance bus service and steerage class.

Posted by: B on May 21, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

Like many of the other commentators in this thread, I don’t understand why you’re taking AA to London when there are many superior airlines. AA’s seats, food, service, etc are terribly inferior compared to most of the other major international carriers discussed here such as Virgin and BA and, of course, my personal favorite Air New Zealand. But most of the better airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Air Canada, etc also fly LAX-LHR. Also, I don’t think your frequent flyer miles should lock you in to AA since they are a member of the One World alliance and so you can probably use them on any member’s flights. (I don’t know this, however, since I am locked in to the competing Star alliance.

That said, have a safe and pleasant journey.

Posted by: Mitch Guthman on May 21, 2008 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

jame wrote: If American wanted to please people and still increase charges, they could work a deal with TSA and offer an expedited departure service for passengers willing to pay more to escape the security kabuki play on the way to the plane. We'd be just as secure, and happy to pay extra to avoid the hassle and humiliation.

The TSA is already has this program (called CLEAR) in some airports.

Posted by: on May 21, 2008 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

alex, the wisdom imparted by parents for a very long time holds up well. I recall being told from early on children could be seen but not heard. It was actually the 11th Commandment but Moses evidently had the same idiotic soft spot for infants as you and covered it up so no one saw it. And I'd slam the parents of the bawling baby $500 if they shot me a dirty look in return for my dirty look, as if they're proclaiming "Yeah, it's our darling child that sounds like 3 cats in heat knotted up in a burlap bag, whaddya gonna do about it?!" Well, I'm gonna slam your card for $600, how's that?! Try this: Stay out of restaurants, theaters and planes until the damned kid gets through the crying phase. You know, around the age of 26 or thereabouts.

Posted by: steve duncan on May 21, 2008 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin:

1. I think the fee is waived for international flights.

2. Gate check. Bring some enormous bag through security. It doesn't fit in the overhead? My bad. Ok, gate check, please. Presumably they won't be charging you $15 for that.

3. I'm a pilot and I hate everything about flying now. I don't expect to have the airlines supply a model/stewrdess to wipe my buttocks, but a little civility and less of the "up yours, customer" attitude would be nice. My personal favorite are stewardess who make crap up. Oh, you can't stretch your legs due to "federal regulations"? I carry the FARs when I fly. They get none too happy when I ask them to identify the section of the regs that they are referring to.

Posted by: do on May 21, 2008 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

American won't charge bag fees on international flights--your domestic segment's covered, too.

For what it's worth, one of the more comfortable theaters is the Royal Court. Leather seats!

Posted by: Dave Martin on May 21, 2008 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

I know what you mean. I have a trip this summer for which I checked out train travel, but the lines don't go all the way, and making a bus connection would add about 24 hours to the travel time (only four hours of which are road time).

Rail travel has been neglected and starved in the U.S. As oil gets more expensive they may need to rethink that. A rail system meant to be used ought to be cheaper than air travel (and involve much less security theater).

Posted by: jimBOB on May 21, 2008 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Just wait until they make the tray tables and reclining seats coin operated.

Posted by: Seitz on May 21, 2008 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

Send your luggage in advance by FedEx and save yourself the trouble.

Posted by: R on May 21, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

The airlines have learned a lot from the telecoms - nickel and dime everything, provide alarmingly bad service and then pander to the government. Corporate America is so wonderful.

Posted by: josh on May 21, 2008 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

I just returned from vacation. I flew Midwest. The reason I chose Midwest was simple. Every seat is what they call "signature" class. Wider seats and more leg room. The air craft I flew was a 717 configured for 88 seats. Sadly I discovered that later this year they are going to drastically restrict the number of "signature" class and install "saver" seats on the 717. They will then be able to carry 99 passengers. Of course you will still be able to fly in a "signature" class seat but they want more money. Other airlines call "signature" class, first class.

Goody. Now there is no particular reason to fly Midwest. They have become a "bus" service like all the rest. Thanks OPEC.

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 21, 2008 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

I tried to tell Kevin to fly Virgin -- LOVE THEM!!! -- but he said something about having miles, or getting bumped up, or something like that. I fly to London every other year and gave up on BA a long time ago. Virgin is great! Always on time, and they've never lost my luggage. Valuethinker, your advice was good, although I always take the Picadilly line in to town, and it's pretty easy. But I did laugh like a drain at the idea that our mum might be at all infirm -- trust me, she leaves us in the dust!

Posted by: Inkblot's Aunt on May 21, 2008 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

After a recent trip across country to South Carolina I came to two conclusions 1) I was never flying Delta again 2) I was never flying to a destination more than 1 hour from Los Angeles unless someone was paying me a lot of damn money to do so.

Air travel has become something I dread more than a root canal. It is the entire experience: strip search at the entry, double cost on any consumable you buy at the airport, idiots who simply MUST bring every single thing they are traveling with as carry on (and thus spend 15 minutes blocking the aisle while they pack overhead bins), crying babies, uncomfortable seats, interminable waits on the tarmac, the jerk in front of you reclining his seat into your lap, no food (although this actually might be considered a feature), oversold flights....I could go on, but the bottom line is that air travel has become like cattle cars for people.

The real reason they don't allow sharp objects is because we would be killing each other out of frustration.

Posted by: arteclectic on May 21, 2008 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

The airline's business model, just that like of many other sectors of the economy, is breaking or broken. High fuel prices, the incredible shrinking consumer dollar, huge capital and labor costs, fear, greed, and confusion are making airline behavior crazy. It's all a race to snag every loose dollar, grab market share, and hope the other guy goes bankrupt before you do.

Posted by: jrw on May 21, 2008 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Rising air travel costs do not much concern those with median or below incomes, except that the wealthy want them to subsizide their air travel. Median and lower income citizens should demand none of their taxes pay for any air travel infrastructure, which should be paid for only by those using the services.

Posted by: Brojo on May 21, 2008 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

Just on babies.

Gang, babies cry. It is a cost we pay as a civilisation to carry on. They don't cry, or feed, or poop when we would like them to.

If the doctors ever told you and your spouse you'll never have one, it does focus the mind a bit on what makes babies precious.

When the Adoption Agency then tells you you are too old to qualify for the programme, this is another moment when you realise what is precious about children.

Posted by: nonparent on May 21, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

artelectic, keep up with the thread. No bitching about crying babies, wailing crumb snatchers or bawling curtain climbers. Didn't you get alex's memo?

Posted by: steve duncan on May 21, 2008 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Just to cheer y'all up.

'Open Skies' has meant that American and other quality US carriers have gained a number of precious slots on the transatlantic route at the expense of Virgin, BA, KLM, Lufthansa, Emirates and other crappy-experience Euro-islamofascist airlines.

Hurrah managed capitalism.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 21, 2008 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

another top tip for the transatlantic brigade

Avoid Heathrow Terminal 5 (BA) if you can. It's new, and it's a disaster. BA now has the worst lost luggage record in Europe.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 21, 2008 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

I think there's a huge opportunity for UPS or Fedex to pick up my luggage a day or two in advance of my trip at my house and have it waiting for me at my destination airport, or even better, at my destination hotel.

That's a service I would gladly pay for so I didn't have to schlep luggage.

Posted by: Greg VA on May 21, 2008 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Regarding "why not fly a non-US carrier?" (Virgin, BA, etc.)

Sometimes it really depends on your departure point. There are a fair number of airports where American (or another domestic airline) may be the only carrier to offer direct international service. Using another carrier requires going through a mega-airport like JFK and changing both planes and airlines.

Posted by: Dirty Davey on May 21, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

I think airlines should charge by the total weight you bring on board.

I would rather sit next to a cute 100 pound woman who didn't bring 30 pounds of luggage on board than a 275 pound man with 30 pounds of luggage stuffed under the seat.

I don't know how much it cost to fly an extra pound of weight but we should charge for it.

Posted by: neil wilson on May 21, 2008 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

nonparent, what are children for, exactly? Leave out the continuation of the species as that's a suspect motivation. Oh, the joy of raising them doesn't count either. The time spent changing diapers is certainly put to better use engaging in wild sex, climbing mountains or reading a good book. They can't pay your VISA bill. They mix reds with whites so doing the laundry is out. They occasionally need hospitalized, bailed out of jail, rescued from a garage bill or having some insanely expensive party (graduation, wedding, etc) thrown in their honor resulting in your delayed retirement or that BMW you want going by the wayside. Yes, now that I'm here I'm glad my parents had me. Looking at them now I wish they'd had a lot more wild sex, climbed some mountains and read lots of good books. They'd likely be happier for it. I certainly wouldn't begrudge them having taken an "It's all about us" attitude towards their one pass through all this. Kids kinda eff that up. A lot.

Posted by: steve duncan on May 21, 2008 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

I for one would rather sit next to a crying infant than a crying "adult" like steve duncan. I'm actually sorry your life is so miserable, but others have a different experience. We apologize in advance.

Posted by: former child on May 21, 2008 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

steve duncan: Looking at them now I wish they'd had a lot more wild sex, climbed some mountains and read lots of good books.

I agree.

Posted by: alex on May 21, 2008 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

Twenty years or so ago, when Alaska Airlines prided themselves on their exceptional service and meals, they had a pretty hilarious commercial with fat guy about to pee his pants dancing around in the aisle from passenger to passenger trying to bum a quarter to use a competitor's pay toilet in flight.

Posted by: AJB on May 21, 2008 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

Re: baggage fees for international flights

A lot of the details of how airlines handle baggage on international flights is governed by international air-travel "conventions", so I don't think it's up to the airlines to just slap a fee on whatever they want.

If you're old enough to remember those quaint "paper" tickets, you should remember that the back was covered with fine print about baggage terms and conditions.

Posted by: Snarki, child of Loki on May 21, 2008 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

Re kids on flights.

As a long-suffering business traveler, I used to hate kids on flights. Now that I have kids of my own, I think the key to harmonious relationships between flying kids and everyone else is parental effort. If the kid starts crying, kicking the back of the seat or whatever, the parent needs to intervene and tell kid to stop or soothe the kid. Effort = free pass by me.

Non-effort such as the following: 1) Asking a parent to have kid stop kicking to be told "she's a child" as if that made it ok; 2) reading a book for 45 minutes while the kid "cried it out"; 3) offering the kid loud noise-making toys; or, 4) (my favorite), allowing a kid traveling without a seat to roam between parents sitting in the aisle and window much to the irritant of the unrelated person in the middle seat, deserve massive penalty like bieng put on the TSA no-fly list. Like most things people bitch about these days regarding kids (bad influence of music, TV, video games), disrespctful/criminal behavior, fatness, etc., can usually be blamed on crappy parenting, IMHO.

Posted by: do on May 21, 2008 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

Gang, babies cry. It is a cost we pay as a civilisation to carry on. They don't cry, or feed, or poop when we would like them to.

Look, this is very simple. Ipod. Noise cancelling earbuds or headphones. Ignore your neighbor for a few hours.

Problem solved.

Posted by: Seitz on May 21, 2008 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Somewhere I've heard that if you have a great deal of luggage, you can save money by using a carry on bag and sending your luggage air freight to the airport you are arriving to. Perhaps someone will know more about this method and share it with us. I haven't been on a plane since 1977 and plan on keeping it that way.

Posted by: slanted tom on May 21, 2008 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

"$5 PER LAVATORY VISIT"

No, Kevin. Airlines will soon cut small holes under each seat for toilet use. This will both keep travelers out of the aisles and reduce passenger eliminatory weight loads, thereby saving fuel.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on May 21, 2008 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Every thread about air travel has a bunch of people chiming in about how they never fly, as surely as a thread about a television program will always have commenters chiming in about how they don't watch TV.

Posted by: Tyro on May 21, 2008 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Hedley, let's hope they cut the holes big enough to accommodate a baby.

Posted by: steve duncan on May 21, 2008 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

One thing I have started to wonder about after reading Freakonomics, where they point out that Southwest's system is more efficient for loading a plane: SW lets people take any available seat, which they do. Meanwhile, those of us with reserved seats on other airlines find, upon boarding, that they board the people in the front of the plane first, then the people a little further back, and so on. The result is that people trying to get to the middle and the back have to wait for the people in front to find space for their carryons in the overhead bins. The result is a traffic jam. I suspect that if they allowed the people in back to board first, there would be fewer people to wait for and to trip over in getting to the assigned seat. Somehow, all those highly paid efficiency experts haven't figured this out. Perhaps I'll send an email to Ask the Pilot at Salon and get some incredibly complicated explanation as to how this is affected by load/windshear requirements.

The more likely explanation of course is that the people in front pay more, so they are not expected to wait for us peasants. But when it comes to the remaining 35 rows, it doesn't make sense.

Posted by: Bob G on May 21, 2008 at 5:18 PM | PERMALINK

do @ 4:02 nailed it.

It's less a crying/misbehaving child that's the issue than the kid's parent.

If parents are trying to calm kid down, I'm more likely to tolerate the situation.

It's those fucking parents who think that because it's no big deal (to them) that kiddo is screaming off its littel head or spending an hour kicking the back of my seat, then everyone else on the plane should just do likewise and suck it up.

Parents like that make me homicidal.

Posted by: Auto on May 21, 2008 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

Regarding consumer behavior, I'm with those who say it's irrational for American to not simply increase the price of the ticket. It's not like every other airline won't follow suit with these charges, so there's no competitive advantage to be gained by hiding them. It's merely a way to hide the true cost of travel from the passenger.

But one thing that hasn't been addressed here is the colossal cluster f*ck that this new policy is likely to cause. Now, a huge percentage of passengers are going to have to complete a credit card transaction at check-in order to fly. It's going to be a mess. Not to mention the travel rookies who will try to circumvent the fee by packing enormous carry-ons, which will slow down the boarding process even further.

Maybe it's time for Congress to get serious about an air traveler's bill of rights...

Posted by: Kevin Pedraja on May 21, 2008 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

nonparent,

I think we all understand that babies cry. But they don't have to be in nice restaurants, movie theaters, and other places where disruptive behavior by any other group of people would be universally scolded. They just shouldn't be there. There are restaurants and from what I've heard, movie theaters as well, that cater to babies and young children and that's where they need to be.

Kevin,

There's a niche for a company that would charge more to not have babies or children (and maybe even teenagers) on a flight at all.

Posted by: DoubleB on May 21, 2008 at 7:01 PM | PERMALINK

It was a Moslem convert who sang "where do the children play?"

Posted by: Brojo on May 21, 2008 at 7:05 PM | PERMALINK

It's always puzzled me why we can't build planes in two or three separate pieces: a passenger cabin (separate from or combined with) a luggage/cargo bay, and a "flight structure" consisting of the cockpit, tail, wings, engines, fuel tanks, and a strong skeleton or backbone tying them together and to which the cabin(s) can be attached. Then airlines could have a couple of extras of each, put passengers and luggage in one set while waiting for the plane to arrive. Disconnect the arriving cabins, connect the outgoing ones, pump in fuel as needed, and back into the air. Solves a lot of problems and saves a lot of time and money, at the cost of added complexity in the airplane.

Other advantages: larger and smaller cabins that fit on the same airframe, instead of having to have a whole fleet of different-sized airplanes; completely isolates cabin from cockpit; easier inspection of the airframe. How about a big parachute that can land the passenger cabin? Or the ability to transfer loaded passenger and cargo modules onto a rail system, to get it from the airport into the center of the city?

Posted by: Bob Munck on May 21, 2008 at 7:30 PM | PERMALINK

I guess I'm out here all by myself in wondering why a widely announced change in policy should be considered a "sleazy pricing" practice. Where's the lie? (And, no, I don't work in the airline industry, in case you're thinking that.)

Last I checked, airlines aren't charities and aren't required to give away their services at a loss. The first graf of your quote explains it all: "still-surging fuel costs". I just paid about $4.25 for a gallon of gas yesterday. I can only imagine what a gallon of Jet-A costs.

I think we need to face facts: we are running out of resources on a possibly dying planet and it's no surprise that this scarcity of resources reflects itself in higher prices.

Don't like it? Stay home. Don't fly. It'll reduce your carbon footprint. You probably didn't need to make that trip anyhow.

Posted by: Steve on May 21, 2008 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

The commercial airline industry is getting away with attempted murder.

The lax maintenance requirements (thank you GWB and FAA) are going to kill some people in the near future.

Anytime you see a commercial jet back up using its jet engines, instead of a ground vehicle, this tells you that the engines are OUT OF WARRENTEE.

Gives you that warm fuzzy, doesn’t it?

I love flying, the physics involved, and the thrill of living through it.

That’s why I fly R/C (radio controlled), it’s much cheaper and nobody dies.

If I can’t arrive by ground then I don’t have to be there.

For those that have to fly to their destinations, I pray for you constantly.

Posted by: Gravity on May 21, 2008 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

Bob>It's always puzzled me why we can't build planes in two or three separate pieces...

Because the cabin's is a pressure vessel, so has to be a cylinder. A backbone to connect all the other systems would then be extra weight, and be external to the pressure vessel, so also add drag. Airplanes stay light by using the skins for three purposes at once: strength, aerodynamics, and containers for air and fuel.

If you ever tour the Boeing plant, it really opens your eyes to how little there is to a modern jetliner. They're giant beer cans pressurized with fuel and air, only just strong enough to meet the loads of flight. A century of careful improvement, and it's even safe.

Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on May 21, 2008 at 8:20 PM | PERMALINK

As a long suffering business traveler and a parent, the reason babies cry is that as the plane ascends to 36,000 feet the pressure builds in their ears, and it scary and painful for a baby. There isn't a whole hell of alot that a parent can do except try to calm them down.

Having said that, there are plenty of things to see, and places to go in Southern cal that I can drive to see. I haven't and won't take my kids on a plance until the youngest is at least six.

Posted by: Harv on May 21, 2008 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK

Here's a sleazy and widespread practice: Listing cheap fares that are "one-way based on round-trip purchase." What happens is that the big carriers will list a one-way fare at which they won't sell you a one-way ticket. Put differently, they're advertising something that doesn't exist. They could advertise the $298 round-trip fare (or, even better from the standpoint of transparency, $300), but then the price wouldn't look so enticing.

Posted by: Jeremy B. on May 21, 2008 at 8:55 PM | PERMALINK

Harv: the reason babies cry is that as the plane ascends to 36,000 feet the pressure builds in their ears, and it scary and painful for a baby. There isn't a whole hell of alot that a parent can do except try to calm them down.

You can get ear drops. I forget exactly which kind, but ask your pediatrician.

Babies and toddlers can't (or just don't know how) to pop their ears, so the pressure difference is painful. The drops worked great for our kids when they were younger.

Posted by: alex on May 21, 2008 at 9:12 PM | PERMALINK

You are mistaken that American Airlines execs understand airline economics. They don't. They hung on to fuel guzzling MD 80s after everyone else had dumped them, figuring they were a saving money buy avoiding buying new planes. When fuel costs skyrocketed, they were money losers but AA is at the back of the line for purchase of new planes. They bet on the wrong horse. They lost.

Posted by: Art Hackett on May 21, 2008 at 9:21 PM | PERMALINK

Bruce the Canuck: "Because the cabin's is a pressure vessel, so has to be a cylinder. A backbone to connect all the other systems would then be extra weight"

No, I understand all that. But it's an engineering trade-off, and I'm not convinced that the savings of the modular design wouldn't exceed the cost of the extra weight and complexity. Sure, there's a fuel price-point where it wouldn't, but we may not have reached that even at today's prices.

Also, the outside of the cabin doesn't have to be the pressure vessel. You could have seats and luggage containers on a rack that rolls into the plane, maybe by swinging the nose up the way some of the big cargo planes do.

It's discouraging, though, that they aren't even considering the blended body (flying wing) designs because "everybody has to be near a window." That speaks of huge conservatism in airplane design.

Posted by: Bob Munck on May 21, 2008 at 9:25 PM | PERMALINK

Bob Munck: That speaks of huge conservatism in airplane design.

Come on Bob - think outside the box. The whole idea of using airplanes for flight is overly conservative groupthink. I prefer my personalized catapult approach.

Posted by: alex on May 21, 2008 at 9:31 PM | PERMALINK

I will fly when pigs fly. TSA and the Airlines can stuff it.

Posted by: veloer on May 21, 2008 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

It's not as fast as a plane, but Amtrak doesn't charge hidden fees to ride the rails. You pay the one price you get when you book a train (although prices vary based on demand). Sure food's extra, but it's better than what you get aboard a plane these days.

Another possible downside -- there isn't checked baggage at all the train stops or aboard all the trains. However, it's not too bad if you're used to the carry-on plane lifestyle.

I booked a trip aboard California Zephyr from Sacramento, Calif. to Chicago. It was a little cheaper than flying, but it takes a lot longer to get there (~2.5 days).

I think trains are a great option for regional travel, and a reasonable option for long-distance destinations. But Kevin can't take a train to London from Orange County. :-D

Posted by: Ryan on May 21, 2008 at 10:23 PM | PERMALINK

This is an all too familiar path. The banks did it with ATM cards....first they got you to use them to cut down on the volume of transactions with tellers....and save money

Now they charge you to use the card.....and make money.

It is worth noting however, that in today's era of skyrocketing fuel costs, one needs to be mindful of the simple laws of physics. It takes more energy to get a heavier plane into the air than it does a lighter one. The more baggage folks bring with them, the more weight and the greater the cost.

In the past, carriers could afford to fold that into the overall cost structure. Today, when they are already hemmoraging big bucks, every little bit counts.....not serving meals, pretzels and not peanuts, headphones......but none of that can keep up when the cost of jet fuel goes up like a rocket.

We're in the very early stages of an entirely new way of looking at the way we live and work and travel. I think the changes we'll see in the face of high energy costs are going to be profound and we can only begin to perceive them....greater concentration of populations, greater urbanization, more emphasis on conservation and alternate energy, the end of the era of gas guzzling monster cars and trucks (what the hell was Humvee thinking?). Lots of change on the way and some of it contentious.

Posted by: dweb on May 21, 2008 at 11:11 PM | PERMALINK

I would fly an airline like Ryanair, where I had to look at ads on my seat tray, overhead bin, etc., if that airline would lower its fares. I wouldn't even mind paying for checked bags if it would lower its fares enough.

That said, American airlines are sticks in the mud compared to Euro start-ups. Even Southwest is behind the curve on this one.

Unfortunately, re AA, I live in Dallas. Until the Wright Amendment is fully repealed, Southwest won't help me a lot.

And, Southwest and AA are in semi-collusion here anyway.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 21, 2008 at 11:36 PM | PERMALINK

Not too surprising that the airlines would eventually start treating their customers like they treat their employees.

Posted by: Bryrock on May 22, 2008 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

Not too surprising that the airlines would eventually start treating their customers like they treat their employees.

Posted by: Bryrock on May 22, 2008 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

I booked a trip aboard California Zephyr from Sacramento, Calif. to Chicago. It was a little cheaper than flying, but it takes a lot longer to get there (~2.5 days).

That's a fairly stunning waste of time. Airplane travel sucks, but I can tolerate a few hours of discomfort in order to arrive at my destination of choice relatively quickly. For many of us, every single vacation day counts, and the idea of using up 5 of them just on travel time isn't really practical, and doing so can't really be expected of anyone other than rail gadflies and the air-phobic.

For trips of about 400-500 miles, rail can be a substitute option for air travel if you're willing to take an all-night train that allows you to arrive at your destination first thing in the morning. However, once again, the discomfort of spending all night on a train is much worse than the inconvenience of modern air travel, which only takes a few hours each way, including check-in time.

Posted by: Tyro on May 22, 2008 at 12:14 AM | PERMALINK

They manufacture cheaper airplanes if they would just stop the nonsense with having windows.

Posted by: ways to save $ on May 22, 2008 at 6:53 AM | PERMALINK

To Tyro:
Blame your oldfashioned trains!
A french TGV or a german ICE does 200 miles an hour in commercial use. And as the train stations are just in the city centers the train is FASTER then the plain for trips under 400-500 miles.

Posted by: Steffen on May 22, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

"Airlines have done a fair bit of consumer behavior research and have concluded that most people will go with the cheapest fare no matter what, even if it only saves them a few dollars and even if it makes them significantly more uncomfortable."

I am a very occasional flier. When I go online to purchase a ticket, what do I have to go on other than price? I would happily pay a reasonable amount extra for a less uncomfortable experience, but the information I have readily available doesn't tell me anything useful in about this. Frankly, any information provided by the airlines themselves I would suspect of being lies anyway.

If some third party such as Consumer Reports provided reliable ratings in a convenient format, then I would be willing to spring for that more expensive ticket. As it is, I have no idea if the ticket is more expensive because it is a better product, the result of arcane airline pricing algorithms, or because the airline hopes I will be fooled into assuming it is better because it is more expensive. Without this information, I'll go with the cheapest fare: I haven't been given any reason not to.

Posted by: Richard Hershberger on May 22, 2008 at 10:58 AM | PERMALINK

It takes more energy to get a heavier plane into the air than it does a lighter one.

Why are not almost lighter than air vehicles made? Could not helium be used to make airplanes lighter and thus less expensive to fly? They would not have to be craft lighter than air, like zeppelins, but partially filled with helium to lighten the load and reduce the need for so much energy to fly.

If it is true that peak oil has arrived, lots of alternatives to the wasteful ways we use energy now will be produced.

Posted by: Brojo on May 22, 2008 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Could not helium be used to make airplanes lighter and thus less expensive to fly?

The Pilot's Union has come out strongly against that. They get all embarrassed when they have to talk on the radio with high squeaky voices.

Posted by: Bob Munck on May 22, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Bob G

In the military, they make you form up and board as a formation.

Now they could do this even with booked airline seats: we would organise ourselves so that the person in front of us had a higher seat number, and behind a lower.

But we like a world where we can go shopping, arrive at the airport late, race for our gate, etc. We rely on the fact that no one will chastise us for failing to be prompt and organised.

As civilians, we lack an ability or training to organise ourselves.

What you suggest (no seat numbers) doesn't work long haul, but does short haul.

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