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Contrails: Building Your Own Experience

We used to blame the airline when the person in the next seat was getting identical service for a few hundred bucks less. Now we’re to blame.


September 27, 2007
By David Carr

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Bulkheads and seats lining the emergency exits are prime real estate in
the economy cabin of any airliner. I for one would gladly cough up an
extra twenty to reserve one, and often puzzled over why the airline
industry – already reduced to digging behind the seat cushions to pay
the bills – never charged a premium for the extra legroom those coveted
rows afford.

Clearly,
I’m not the only one. In the scramble to save money, complimentary
meals on domestic flights were just the first casualty in an
accelerated attack on the cheap seats. Everything is up for grabs –
usually for the purpose of pitching it out of the cabin, never to
return, except for a price.

But while airlines are criticized
for stripping out amenities such as cabin pillows and free telephone
reservations, the retooling of the fare structure by legacy carriers
goes unappreciated. Following a pace largely set by Air Canada, North
America’s fullservice airlines are tearing down barriers such as
advanced bookings and inconvenient Saturday night stopovers designed to
push the most attractive fares out of reach for a good percentage of
the marketplace.

Instead, depending on the fare level, we now
have the option to pay extra on the base price if we want to make a
reservation through the airline’s call centre rather than go online, or
to select a seat in advance. Typically, the lowest fare is
non-refundable and will cost you the most to alter your booking. There
is greater flexibility and fewer penalties depending on how far up the
fare chain you wish to climb.

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What this means is that the
passenger is as close to an equitable fare structure as we have seen
since deregulation. We used to blame the airline when the person in the
next seat was getting identical service for a few hundred bucks less.
Now we’re to blame for not doing a better job building our own
in-flight experience. For services within North America at least, the
airline is offering the economy passenger a seat, an entertainment
system and a safe ride. Everything else including meals, headsets and
inflatable pillows, is up to you. Either bring it or buy it onboard.

None
of this would have been possible without better yield management
systems and online access, and would have been slow to happen if not
for the lowcost airline phenomenon. Certain airlines in the U.S. are
still hesitant to embrace the Air Canada model entirely, insisting on
some restrictions for specific routes. A build-your-own travel
experience does not have to be restricted to the in-flight product.
Airport operators can also offer amenities such as one-stop lounges in
business-class style and recliners for economy passengers prepared to
dig a bit deeper to pamper themselves between connecting flights.

Right
now such add-ons are offered on a pay-as-you-go basis. The point is
that for the economy passenger, the sky is the limit – and is likely to
become even more so as airlines press a new generation of Airbus A380s
and Boeing 787s into service. For their part, airlines can extend their
own promotions. WestJet already uses its free reservation service as a
competitive advantage against Air Canada. What about, book now and
dinner is on us?

Building your own flight experience is not for
everybody.. For these people there are still travel agents, although
even here it is buyer beware. When a friend and I decided to travel to
the U.K. I put together a great package on britishairways.ca including
convenient flight times and hotel accommodation in London.

With
the heavy lifting done, and thinking I might get a better price from a
travel agent – one displaying a British Airways award for service
excellence – I printed off the itinerary and left it to the experts.
What could be easier? Well, the agent messed up the entire itinerary
and booked us into a down-market hotel that wasn’t even part of any BA
package. The savings were zero, although I learned two valuable
lessons: trust my own judgment more, and that some airlines hand out
service awards like bags of M&Ms at Halloween.


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