The business of operating an airline behind the scenes is quite a feat. A lot of moving parts are carefully orchestrated by the minute, indeed, the second, to ensure an airplane pushes back on time. Putting the right people in the right place with the right equipment when it comes to airlines is a thing of beauty. Even though I spent 10 years in operations management at a very big airline, tacitly get how things work, and even contributed to making it work, the industry still fascinates me. I well remember explaining to a “senior official” outside the industry why 20 aircraft can have the same departure time at a major hub and getting the skeptical raised eyebrow. Loading an aluminum tube with kerosene, and launching it across an ocean at 9 miles a minute should be complicated.
On the other hand, airlines start to lose me when they make things needlessly complicated for their customers – the folks that pay the bills. Yes, I know the theory of revenue maximization, but I’m talking about more than that. The act of purchasing transportation between two points on a map from an airline comes with its own set of complications, and frankly I’ve always wondered why? I once printed the fare rules for a particular fare from DC to Chicago. I stand 5’10” tall, and the reams of “dot matrix” printer paper stretched from shoulder height to the floor and beyond. Why? Yes, I know there’s a history behind fare rules, but I don’t care. The idea of my purchasing transportation should not come with 5 feet of small character fine print.
Then, there is Delta’s recent tweak to its same day confirmed policy. Granted, Delta could take the Southwest approach here, and just say you fly what you bought or you upgrade it to full fare, but there’s a story here. The most recent change to the SDC policy disallows moving from connections to non-stops, but allows moving from non-stops to connections, and comes with a list of other caveats. If the original post in the FT thread that outed this change is true, and I have no doubt that it is, one of the drivers behind the change is that Delta’s own agents either can’t or won’t follow its own fare rules. Likely, a combination of both – who has time to read 5 feet of small character print when they need to close a call and move to the next one?
There are other examples of needless complication. A recent favorite of mine comes from American Airlines. As they’ve rolled out meal changes on certain routes, they also decided to change their method of taking meal orders from customers. Historically, this was done with what is fondly known as FEBO. They start taking orders at the front of the cabin on even numbered flights, and the back on odd numbered flights. Seems simple enough. They’ve now improved upon this with a new method that goes something like this – If you’re flight is headed east and changes time zones, they’ll take orders from front to back. If the flight is headed west, and changes time zones, orders are taken from the back to front. But if you aren’t changing time zones, they’ll take orders from front to back if you’re headed southbound, and back to front if heading northbound. Glad they cleared that up. In fairness, you can avoid all of this nonsense by pre-ordering your first or business class meal within 30 days of your flight at aa.com/menu.
I could go on for days with examples of this, but I won’t. Then there are the labyrinth of fees in addition to your ticket. My position on change fees is probably worth its own post. To be clear, I’m not advocating a return to the days before bag fees. I happen to think it is entirely appropriate to charge for transporting and delivering checked luggage, although I have always felt JetBlue’s one checked bag included in the ticket price model is the best of all. What I really wish for is an uncomplicated, understandable, and fair transaction when one enters into an agreement for transportation (aka buying a ticket) with an airline. Is that too much to wish for? Probably so.
-MJ, August 25, 2014