February 4, 2008

Epileptic Dinosaurs

I was very pleased to see United Airlines cut fares from Palmdale to San Francisco. It gets The Wife and I thinking that we'll buy tickets and fly out of here instead of looking for more affordable airfare from Burbank or Los Angeles. We'll certainly pay a little bit more to fly out of our home city -- not a bunch more, but a little bit more. The threshold is that a shuttle ride to LAX is $125 for the two of us. So if our net cost savings from LAX is about $150 or less -- there's parking to pay, too -- we'll forego the pleasure of flying from Palmdale to San Francisco and then connect to our ultimate destination (which is looking like Chicago for this year's trip), and depart from LAX instead.

And, I've gotten over having to pay for food onboard the airplane. I've gotten over that because the food they sell has actually been pretty good the last few times I've flown and eaten what they've been selling. It's obviously still overpriced, but it's been fresher, tastier, and more nutritious than the lump o' Swiss Steak I remember the airlines serving for "free" when I was a kid.

But then, I see a story like this. $100 extra if you need to take more than one bag. Obviously, the airline isn't charging enough, if it needs to surcharge passengers like this. Problem is, passengers are very price-sensitive (I'm guilty here) so they're attracted to a low ticket price. These kinds of surcharges, though, are deceptive in that they raise the bottom line price you pay for the service you get. That sort of thing couldn't have been better-designed to engender resentment in the customers if someone had sat down and tried to brainstorm up the subject of more ways we can piss off our customers.

Then, consider the absolutely bizarre pricing schemes that airlines typically offer. We checked out prices at the firm recently so one of the partners could go up to Nampa, Idaho for his father's birthday. On United, he could fly from LAX to Boise, connecting through San Francisco, round trip for $400. Okay. So then we looked at airfares from Palmdale to Boise, and found airfares were about $250. Better! Then, I checked our airfare just for a Palmdale-San Francisco round trip and found it was nearly $400 again. LAX to SFO? About $300. Palmdale to San Francisco to Boise and back again -- $150 cheaper than if you were just going to San Francisco. It left this traveler -- who might otherwise have considered a day trip to San Francisco as an interesting entertainment option for a special date for his wife -- feeling cold and abused.

Major airlines present a byzantine and unnecessarily expensive mess to their customers. To be sure, they provide an important service, one that our economy depends on. But because their logistics, marketing, support, financial, and personnel systems are so massive and intricate, and because each of those systems grew, organically, over a fifty- to seventy-year period, and because the airlines are in a very competitive and economically sensitive market, the end result is a something which looks like it was intentionally created to alienate the very people who provide the money that makes the whole thing work.

Dinosaurs are thought by paleobiologists to have had small brains and to have distributed neural commands to their massive bodies through clusters of ganglia distributed throughout their bodies. These ganglia were like little mini-brains, taking their orders from the main brain in the head and translating the central nervous system's commands into more localized ones. Imagine, then, if this dinosaur had epilepsy. Periodically, one or more of these nerve centers will send off a massive burst of commands to various segments of the body, some of which may be receiving contradictory commands from the central brain or from another command center. It's astonishing that such a creature could survive adolescence, much less continue to rumble forward through a lengthy life span.

Yet that is what the epileptic dinosaurs that we call the major airlines of the United States do. They do it through reliance on bankruptcy courts to rewrite bad contracts, they do it through federal subsidies, they do it through the overpowering demand for their services, which keeps the customers coming back for more, no matter how badly they've been abused.

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