On U.S. Airways, boarding announcements are like a comedy sketch. Gone are the days when getting on a plane was a simple matter of passengers who need extra time, then first class, then everyone else. Nowadays, it's a ridiculously confusing, hard-to-hear, multi-tiered hierarchy of status level members, credit card holders, fare class purchasers, and beyond that, umpteen "zones".
At U.S. Airways' hub in Charlotte, after five minutes of complicated boarding announcements during which very few passengers actually got on the plane, I turned to my traveling companions and joked that at this rate, our flight would be leaving empty.
When I, and my fellow peasants were finally called as part of "zone 5," passengers from previously called zones were already sitting in their aisle seats, making it cumbersome for us to reach their middle and window seats. None of it made any sense, it was bad for the passenger experience, and I sent a bemused tweet about it. "I know what @USAirways thinks of me because it makes me wait until Zone 5," I joked.
The airline tweeted me back; "Jason here's more info on how we board and how you can guarantee Zone 2." At first, I was thrilled the airline seemed to be paying attention, but when I clicked the link it sent me, its cynicism was revealed in full. It delivered me to a U.S. Airways page that said I could only board sooner if I applied for one of its branded MasterCard or Visa Signature cards or ponied up $31 or more per flight for a different seat.
In other words, U.S. Airways told me, if I don't want to suffer, I have to pay up.
Think about that message for a second.
The fee-based profit model means airlines now have a profit incentive to make you miserable. It's literally built into the revenue structure. The more miserable their standard product makes you, the more likely you are to spend extra cash to make it hurt less. The standard product must actually be substandard if it's going to result in additional revenue. It's the class system run amok.
It isn't just the airlines, either. Cruise lines withhold the best cuts of meat and the least crowded dining rooms for customers who pony up more cash. Hotels stick you into their worst rooms.
Travel businesses are now engaged in a game that's dangerous for their futures. They need to make you miserable enough to want to spend money on up-sells, but not so miserable that you realize how much the experience stinks.
I'd argue that many of them are losing the game. We just think they stink.
Travel is no longer simply about knowing the options that help you avoid fees. It's about getting an acceptable product no matter what price you pay — a choice that isn't optional at all.
It's not fair. This awful game puts flight attendants and other staff in the crossfire.
A flight attendant on one of my U.S. Airways flights told me that over the past few years, as the airlines started figuring out ways to screw with customers so they want to buy better service, customers have started to screw with the airlines right back. Just the day before, after she helped relocate a complaining customer to a better seat, he decided to write a nasty letter to the airlines anyway in an effort to game the system and get some bonus miles as a consolation. Now she'll get called on the carpet even though she did the right thing.
The more travel sellers rig their services to make customers mistrust them, the more customers will take out their frustrations on the wrong people.
Even ethical travelers are coming to the conclusion that the only way to get acceptable service without a fight is to obtain elite status, but what they forget is that obtaining elite status isn't really free. It often requires annual fees or interest charges (for credit cards) or increased custom with regardless of whether other airlines are cheaper (for airlines).
Opening and closing credit cards also knocks your credit rating, so getting new cards to satisfy shifting partnerships is simply bad personal finance. And if an airline treats status-less customers like peons, why would anyway want to do more business with it anyway?
Right now, in this game, customers are losing. But in time, the major brands will be the ones that suffer the most.
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