Ask the pilot

Has American stepped over the line with its baggage fee? Plus: What customers seem to value above all in choosing an airline.

By Patrick Smith
May 30, 2008 2:30PM (UTC)
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"What is it about Southwest Airlines," I asked in this column a week ago, "that makes it such a perennial crowd pleaser?" Days earlier, Southwest had finished a solid first place in a University of Michigan airline satisfaction survey.

I proposed a simple answer: "People don't expect much. Southwest Airlines is nothing if not unpretentious," I wrote, "having mastered the art of get-what-you-pay-for satisfaction."


That must have been an overly simple verdict. Judging from the letters I've received from loyal Southwest partisans, I was selling their beloved airline short. OK, maybe folks don't expect much of the feisty Texans. But of the things they do expect, the airline delivers almost every time. Consistency, consistency, consistency -- that was the word that kept popping up. As one letter writer puts it:

"Any chain store marketer will explain to you one of the fundamentals of chains is ensuring a consistent customer experience from one to the next. This is why chain stores are laid out the same, have the same menu, the same staff uniforms, the same prices, the guy at the door greeting you saying the same thing. People, apparently, like the experience of knowing exactly what to expect. Southwest has this down to a T." Specifically, people appreciate the carrier's first-come, first-served seating policy, the upbeat tenor of its staff, and its refreshingly flexible ticketing and refund policies. To describe the airline's magic in three words, you might go with these: easy, friendly and, above all else, predictable. On that last point especially, its competitors are all over the place. One flight is pleasant, the next is awful.

Remember too that in most people's minds the air travel experience is measured curbside to curbside, not jetway to jetway. Southwest reaps the advantage of not only how it flies but where. Aiming off-center in many markets, it allows customers to savor the logistical ease of a Manchester, Islip or Providence, instead of the hectic snarls of a Boston, Newark or La Guardia. The legacy giants, with their reliance on mega-hub feed, can't succeed this way. Southwest is the closest thing we've got to an official airline of the suburbs.


It's also the last of a nearly vanished breed: an airline with a true personality, that large numbers of fliers have unwavering fondness for. (In gratitude, Southwest's logo features a winged heart.)

In fairness to the competition, Southwest's smaller size, more than anything, makes this possible. Or "scope," really, is the better word. Southwest carries plenty of people (97 million each year, placing it at No. 2 overall), but it can't take you to Bangkok -- or London or Lagos or Santiago or Dubai. In a sense it's apples and oranges when you start making comparisons with the network carriers. Your Americans, Deltas, Uniteds and Continentals have immensely different, and far more expansive, operating structures, as well as long-established company cultures that, for better or worse, can't be rejiggered overnight. Simplicity isn't so simple when you've got four hubs and a fleet of 600 aircraft serving five continents. Let's reassess when Southwest buys a fleet of wide-body aircraft and opens up routes overseas. (To this point, the airline has been smart enough to know that its business model doesn't translate well over longer distances. Anybody remember PeopleExpress and its ventures into London? Laker? Tower Air?) And last, for what it's worth, I'll point out that when I held my own airline survey back in 2004, Southwest received roughly an equal number of positive and negative votes. While it is great at what it does, it's apparently not for everybody, and it can only go so far -- literally.

Meanwhile, no sooner was that University of Michigan survey making the media rounds than American Airlines suddenly stole the show. Last week, American announced it would begin charging $15 for the privilege of checking a bag. Not a second bag, mind you. The first bag. The second one will cost a much heftier $45.


In this space two weeks ago we looked at the growing practice of "unbundling." That is, the parsing of airfares into a la carte nuggets -- 10 bucks for a window seat, 15 for an aisle, 7 for a turkey wrap. One airline will soon begin selling pillows and take-home fleece blankets. Unbundling, I wrote, will inevitably leave some passengers feeling nickel-and-dimed, but it's a smart idea in that those looking for perks can have them, absorbing a higher share of increased fares. No airline's fare structure, as currently constituted, can withstand oil that is headed toward $150 a barrel; one way or another, the cost of flying will climb. Is it not better to charge a premium for specific items, not all of which everybody wants, than to raise prices even further across the board?

But unbundling should only be taken so far. American may have stepped over the line. It's true that a significant fraction of fliers travel only with carry-ons, but this is taking unfair advantage of the large number who bring full-size suitcases, effectively entrapping them with a minimum $15 surcharge. No less important, overhead bins are jampacked as it is, and A.A.'s decision will encourage millions of passengers to bring aboard even more. The process of boarding (and disembarking) is already a hellish scrum, and I fail to see how this won't make it worse. We'll have more angry passengers and frustrated crew members, and it will ratchet up the number of last-minute "gate checks" (will those be charged $15 as well, cash on the spot?), leading to longer delays. As one flier expressed in an e-mail, "Without strong adherence to existing carry-on policies, flying American is going to be an exercise in anger management." Response to the announcement has been predominantly negative, and I wonder if American might rethink.


On that note -- and this might be a bad idea -- how about a list of the best and worst ideas in airline marketing history? I'll leave the latter to you, and there are plenty to choose from. As for the best, I'll tell you my own pick: Northwest's decision, 20 years ago, to become the globe's first major carrier to impose a systemwide in-flight smoking ban. That'd be a hard one to beat, but here's a challenge to any airline daring enough: a rule that requires the medicating, muzzling or sequestering of all children under 4 years old -- below deck would be nice, or out on the wing.


Re: Are airlines skimping on fuel?


I am the director of technology for the Airline Dispatchers Federation, and a licensed aircraft dispatcher for a major airline. On behalf of the ADF and myself personally, I would like to thank you for your response to the recent highly sensationalized media reports about airlines and dispatchers shorting pilots of fuel. Your rebuttal offers an accurate assessment of how airlines operate on a daily basis prescribed by the Federal Aviation Regulations. It is refreshing to read accurate and insightful reporting instead of reporting that plays off of people's fears and emotions.

Brandon Caple
Airline Dispatchers Federation

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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