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Purser: The truth is, it’s hell all over

Back in July, eyeing the recent tendency of airlines to start charging for everything in sight – checked bags, snacks, window/aisle seats, etc. – a satirical-minded writer in the Wall Street Journal offered a few additional suggestions of his own.


October 28, 2008
By Richard Purser

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Back in July, eyeing the recent tendency of airlines to start charging for everything in sight – checked bags, snacks, window/aisle seats, etc. – a satirical-minded writer in the Wall Street Journal offered a few additional suggestions of his own. One idea was pay toilets – start charging $1 for access to the washrooms. “But why stop there?” asked the writer, Neal Templin. “How about pricing one bathroom at $1 and the other at $3 for passengers who are really in a hurry – like those freeways where motorists pay extra money to drive in a special lane with less traffic?” Another of Templin’s ideas was to have a lottery at the check-in counter. Economy-class passengers would purchase tickets for a dollar or two, and the winner would get first-class treatment on the flight – “he would eat real food on real china, get a complimentary glass of wine, have a flight attendant at his beck and call.” Of course, Templin added, the passenger sitting next to the winner might find this irksome as he chews on his $4 cheese and crackers. (He’s no doubt right; so I would go one better and move the winning passenger into the actual first-class cabin, where a seat on each flight would be reserved for the winner!)

Readers responded with a host of further suggestions, such as charging $1 for previously-viewed magazines and $5 for new ones; auctioning off the flight attendants so that the winner gets to wine and dine them in strange cities; and selling planes’ names to commercial interests (e.g., “Joe’s Hair Salon” rather than “Yankee Clipper”) in exchange for the buyer taking over their maintenance costs.

On August 1, just a few weeks after Templin’s article, reality once again caught up with satire. US Airways started charging domestic economy-class passengers $2 for bottled water or sodas and $1 for coffee or tea. This drew much nasty comment from bloggers, but some wondered why the tradition of free non-alcoholic beverages on planes was so sacrosanct. After all, they pointed out, coach-class passengers on Amtrak don’t expect free beverages. They go to the train’s snack counter and buy them.

There’s truth to that, but the more salient truth today is that the public is not having any love affair with the airlines. Criticism of airlines is rampant in the media, and several U.S. airlines have written down their intangible assets, or “goodwill,” by billions of dollars – down to zero, in the case of United. The once-great United Airlines was on the receiving end of a particularly nasty article by Business Week columnist Roben Farzad in the magazine’s August 25 issue, under the heading: “United: O’Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow? It’s time to liquidate the woebegone carrier and let stronger hands manage the pieces.” Chronicling the miseries that have beset the 80-year-old carrier during this decade, Farzad asks “Will the torture ever end?” Then he provides his own answer: “Only if United does.”
The U.S. media are not alone. In late July, Canada’s answer to Time and Newsweek, Maclean’s magazine, came out with a six-page saga of woe titled “Why Air Travel Is Hell.” Writer Jason Kirby’s wide-ranging article quotes Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst at the Washington, D.C. research firm AirlineForecasts, as saying that “weak and feeble” airlines should be allowed to fail, which would enable the survivors to boost fares to the level where they’re profitable. While Kirby’s article chronicles the end of the “golden age” of air travel, an accompanying two-pager by colleague Susan Mohammad – “Way Back When the Skies Were Friendly” – reminds us of what used to be. Great for us old nostalgia buffs – or for those too young to know what it once was.

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In this issue of Wings, our own David Carr also reminds us (page 16) of the passing of that age and the onset of the age of mass air transport. Elsewhere (page 18) he notes the survivors and non-survivors in the Canadian sector of the world aviation maelstrom.

At least 30 world airlines have gone belly-up this year, and some fear that the total may reach 50 or more by year-end or shortly thereafter. Recent start-ups are lost if they are insufficiently capitalized against a possible early end to their lives; Canada’s Porter Airlines appears to have a relatively hefty initial dose of capital to protect it at least while it has a chance to get going, but this is far from true for other airlines such as ill-fated Zoom. If an airline doesn’t have enough capital to secure itself against start-up difficulties, and to secure its passengers against the catastrophe of sudden shutdown, then it has no business being licensed to operate.


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