Editors' pick: Originally published April 21.
There aren’t many fates worse than getting stuck than the middle seat on an airplane. Body odors, arguments, even bits of stale cheese all seem to roll downhill into the benighted center. For a flier already accustomed to the barrage of small indignities justified in the name of budget cuts, fighting over the armrests with a pair of strangers can be the last straw.
That’s why some passengers pay to avoid it.
As the New York Times reported recently, landing the coveted window or aisle seat has gotten harder than it once was. Early boarding and priority check in privileges have gotten steadily more expensive, which is a particular dilemma on carriers such as Southwest and Spirit (along with many others) which don’t let passengers choose seats. Instead they’re left up to the boarding scrum… with few good options for those who get on last.
Welcome to the age of the inconvenience charge.
Once up on a time airlines found ways to tack on extra charges by providing additional services, from beers all the way up to a first class upgrade. Yet as costs have grown and passengers seem increasingly immune to anything except for sticker price, carriers have begun to make up the money in a new way: by letting customers pay to get out of the unpleasant bits of travel, whether necessary or fabricated. It is, according to founder of Bespoke Travel Experiences Vinal Burbeck, “the Spiritization of travel.”
“I was recently looking for a flight from DTW [Detroit] to LAX [Los Angeles]," Burbeck said. "All the major metasearch engines were showing a very reasonable fare on Delta, so I headed over to delta.com. I was dismayed -- O.K., furious -- to find that it was actually a ‘Basic Economy’ fare, and that it would not come with the benefits I typically enjoy as a Medallion member.”
Basic Economy, Burbeck explained, is one of the five tiers that Delta is introducing, one stripped of options such as itinerary changes, seat selection or upgrade eligibility. Customers can get those conveniences back, of course… for a price.
“As someone who encourages people to travel more often, I'm worried that this trend will make it more expensive, less comfortable and, as a result, less appealing to those who are already hesitant to travel due to increasing health & safety concerns,” Burbeck said.
This trend has begun popping up at almost every point in the flying experience. Not long ago, travelers began to lament additional charges for checking bags on an airline. In response, they began to carry on more often, and with larger and larger bags.
Priority passengers get first crack at what has become highly prized space in the overhead compartment, while others risk getting their roll-on bag checked at the gate. Some airlines have even begun to charge carry-on fees. As far as bags that get lost or loaded onto the wrong plane, it took a recent act of Congress to force airlines to admit that they might owe passengers at least that money back.
No wonder. In 2015 alone the major American airlines collected $18.4 billion off of “ancillary revenue,” the money collected for everything other than simple transportation.
From a can of cola to special-access security lines, this is an experience that seems increasingly sweeping, as Keith Shadle, an oceanographer who travels frequently for work, discovered.
“If I wanted to use the headphones to view any programming on the flight, I had to use the ones provided, at cost,” he wrote of a recent experience in an email. “Your standard headphones would not work. If you wanted to watch or listen you had to get these. Rather frustrating.”
Passenger complaints have risen in tandem with the new philosophy of charges, so much so that entire Reddit threads have formed dedicated to the worst in-flight experiences. It has grown to the point where industry reporters, and travelers themselves, take seriously the persistent rumors that budget airlines may install cash-access bathrooms.
Yet while passengers complain, loudly, about the charges they’re asked to endure in the name of reclaiming basic amenities, they continue to vote with their wallets. Spirit Airlines, the company which has become the face of à la carte airfare, may be widely loathed… but it is also one of the most profitable airlines in America. Meanwhile JetBlue, an airline built on customer-first policies, has begun charging for checked luggage.
The problem is that, historically, fliers tend to be sticker-oriented consumers. Downstream issues such as security lines, luggage and legroom all fade away in the moment of purchase when what really matters are fares and travel time.
According to Mark Harrington, vice president of marketing for Clutch, this cannot continue indefinitely.
“Airlines have taken customer loyalty for granted,” he said, “stripping away what were once basic comforts and simple perks to squeeze out a bit more margin. Charging passenger to get these perks back adds to the frustration and feeling of being increasingly nickel and dimed.”
What’s worse, the loyalty programs, which are supposed to replace those perks are “complex, clunky, and don’t do a great job at providing benefit to Average Joe traveler.”
Harrington predicts that it may all end up coming back to bite major carriers by driving consumers to alternatives who focus on the consumer experience. Indeed, although JetBlue may have begun whittling back its programs, the company’s prominence as the flier-friendly option seems to indicate at least some hunger in the marketplace for a model which feels less predatory.
It’s a sentiment Burbeck echoed.
Customers, she said, “have to choose whether they want affordability or comfort. It’s one of the many difficult decisions travelers must make when it comes to booking flights.”
Oh, and the arm rest debate? They both belong to the middle seat, obviously.