What if restaurants were run like airlines?

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If you’ve booked an airline ticket recently, then you already know about its bizarre, counterintuitive rules. A round-trip ticket costs less than a one-way ticket. Change fees can be higher than the fare. Your miles don’t even belong to you.

Travel agent Al Hess immortalized this absurdity in the classic If airlines sold paint essay more than two decades ago, and it continues to inspire others.

One of them is reader Bill Knecht, who imagines what would happen if airlines ran a restaurant.

One Friday evening, a couple arrives at a restaurant for dinner. They go up to the host at the front.

Man: “Hello, we are the Carters and we have a 7 p.m. reservation.”

Host: “Hello. Welcome to United Delta American Restaurant. We are running a little behind tonight, so we anticipate that we can seat you around 9 p.m.”

Man: “What? A two-hour delay? Why?”

Host: “No one seems to know. These things happen. If you like, have a seat over there in the waiting area and we’ll call you when your table is ready.”

Man: “I can’t believe this. We should just leave and find somewhere else, but at this hour on Friday that could take forever. OK, we’ll wait.”

Host: “Very good, sir. Please follow me.” He leads the couple to a loud, crowded room with uncomfortable chairs. Half the people are talking loudly on their cell phones. Noisy children are running around everywhere. In the corner there are vending machines selling soft drinks and snacks.

Finally, about 9:15 the host comes in and says their table is ready. He leads the couple into another crowded, noisy room and directs them to a small wooden picnic table that already has six people sitting at it, including one crying baby and two obnoxious children. There are two very narrow spots on the bench seats that adults might be able to squeeze into.

Man: “What in the hell is this? You can’t expect us to sit here and try to have dinner! This is our anniversary and we expected much better than this!”

Host: “This is our Standard Economy Class seating. Anyone who books a reservation with us receives this class in order to save money. It’s for your own benefit. But if you prefer, we have other options available. If you would like additional legroom, we can move you up to a Preferred Economy Class table for only $50. If you want a table with fewer people, you can upgrade to a Business Class table, which has larger seats and only two other people there. That would only be $100 more.”

Man: “Are you out of your mind? This is our anniversary. We want a decent-sized private table in a quiet room!”

Host: “Excellent choice, sir. That is our First Class seating. I believe we have such a table available.”

Man: “How much more does it cost?”

Host: “I can’t give you an exact dollar amount. We just triple the cost of your meal, including drinks and wine. But it cannot be less than an additional $250.”

Man: “Why am I not surprised? You might as well put on a mask and point a gun at me. Let’s go.”

Host: “As you wish, sir. I think you both will be very happy with your choice.” He leads the couple to their table. “Your waiter will be with you soon.”

The couple sits down at the table and notices that there is nothing at all on it. No menus, no plates, no silverware, nothing. Eventually a waiter appears. He says hello and hands each one of them an electronic device resembling a tablet computer. It says MENU at the top of the screen.

Man: “Wow, this is the first time I have ever seen menus in electronic form instead of printed on paper. Nice idea. It gives you a lot of flexibility to change the menu as needed.” Then he started reading the menu. “Man, these prices are really expensive. This is a lot more than we are used to paying when we eat out.”

Waiter: “Yes, sir. You see, the prices are flexible, not fixed. First of all, you are here at prime time, when demand is heaviest. If you were here for dinner at, say, 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the prices would be much less.”

Woman: “That’s insane! No one eats dinner at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday!”

Waiter: “Precisely. Demand is much lower then, so the prices are lower. Also, the prices are lower if you see them several weeks before your dinner reservation. They rise consistently as you get closer to the date and time of your reservation. You are seeing them at the time of your reservation, so they are maximized.”

Woman: “What do you mean if we see them several weeks in advance? How can we do that, and even if we could, how could that possibly affect the prices that we actually pay?”

Waiter: “Well, it’s not just seeing the prices. To see them, just go to our website. There you can see our menu. Then you enter the date and time you expect to have dinner, and the prices will appear. But please understand that those prices are not fixed. If you go back and look later, the prices could be different. It all depends on how many other people are doing the same thing. Again, supply and demand.”

Woman: “So you’re telling me that ten different people could consume exactly the same food and drink at exactly the same date and time, and all ten could pay a different price for the same meal? And who determines how the prices change and when?”

Waiter: “Yes ma’am. It’s rare that different people pay the same price for the same meal. I’m told that prices are determined by a whole bunch of computers that constantly recalculate the prices based on fluctuating supply and demand.

But I’ll give you some advice on how to get the absolute best prices for yourself and save the most money. When you decide to make a reservation to dine here, go to our web site as far in advance as you can, at least six weeks beforehand. Scan the menu, including the wine list, and decide exactly what you are going to have. Add all those choices to your shopping cart and we’ll calculate the total bill.

Then just use a credit card to pay the bill. That will lock in the total price and give you great savings!”

Woman: “You’ve got to be joking. How can anyone know exactly what they want to eat or drink six weeks or more in advance? And what if we arrive at the restaurant and decide that we want to change our order? Or we want to change the date and time of the reservation, or cancel it entirely? How do we get our money back?”

Waiter: “Oh, you can’t change your order. The reason you got such a low price is that the order is locked in. You can change the date or time of your reservation, but if you do that there is a $99 service charge. And if you cancel the reservation, you forfeit the entire amount that you paid. We don’t do refunds.”

Woman: “That is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard! No one could possibly treat their customers like this and stay in business. I feel like I’m in the middle of a bad dream. Bring us a couple of very strong martinis!”

Waiter: “Certainly, ma’am. While we’re fixing your drinks, I suggest you click on the “extras” link so you can decide if you want plates, utensils, and napkins with your food.”

Man: “What in the hell are you talking about now? Of course we want plates, utensils, and napkins. Are you nuts?”

Waiter: “Your Standard Economy Class meal is not served on plates. It’s our way of providing you with the maximum amount of cost savings. We put the food on sheets of wax paper. With that each of you also gets a small white plastic spoon, knife and fork, plus a small cocktail-size paper napkin, all at no extra charge.

But many of our customers choose to upgrade, and the choices can be found when you click the “extras” link. For example, if you want plates, you can choose a small 8-1/2 inch diameter paper plate for only $5.50 per person. Or go for the dinner-size paper plate for only $12.50 each. Most customers select the dinner-size porcelain plate for only $18 each. If you are really going fancy, get the china plates for $30 per person.

Then the cutlery. A larger, more durable plastic spoon, knife and fork are available for just $6 per person. If you prefer metal cutlery, that’s $15 per person.

And finally, the napkins. You can upgrade to a dinner-size paper napkin for just $4.50 per person, or get a cloth napkin for $11 per person. Best of all, on our web site you’ll see options to bundle the upgrades and save as much as $2 each! I can tell you that bundling has become very, very popular. So while I get your drinks, just make your upgrade choices and put them in your shopping cart.”

At this point, the man and woman are just staring at him with their mouths hanging open. They are in complete shock. The waiter goes off to get their drinks. While he’s gone, the couple recovers enough to enter their choices for the meal, wine and extras. After they finish doing that, the tablet displays the total bill and asks for a credit card number to pay for everything. At that moment the waiter returns with their drinks.

Man: “So we have to pay for everything in advance? And what’s this 25 percent tip that it added to the bill?”

Waiter: “You have to pay for everything before I can bring it out. That’s just the rule. And the 25 percent tip is for excellent customer service!”

Are you laughing — or crying? Maybe a little of both.

Me too.

Thank you, Bill Knecht, for updating this classic story. If you have an opinion about his story, please feel free to contact him directly.

And to the airline apologists reading this, I have just one thing to say: Yes, this is what it looks like to the rest of us.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • Alan Gore

    Then there’s the plus-size guy at the next table, who can come over and sit on your meal while you are still in the middle of eating it.

  • AJPeabody

    What, no salt and pepper fee?

  • Extramail

    Don’t forget that the restaurant could be closed when you show up for your pre-paid meal because the cook had already worked too many hours or the weather was bad at the shipping docks where your food was being shipped in. You might also have to sit next to a “comfort” dog, cat, snake, pig, etc.

  • The Original Joe S

    QUIET! Don’t give ’em any ideas!

  • KarlaKatz

    Just like those “free” 3 rice crackers tossed to your lap from the beverage cart, S&P are complimentary.

  • In Romania, McDonald’s charges for each ketchup pack they give you. Let’s hope that’s one idea that doesn’t travel.

  • Carchar

    After they finished renovating terminal C, eliminating a couple of my preferred sit-down (not food court) restaurants, I decided to try one of the new ones. The server showed me how to order. It was a more upscale restaurant, but I was to use the electronic menu that was affixed to the table. I had to punch in all my choices and then swipe my credit card to pay. Included was a mandatory 18% tip. I stopped short of paying. I told the server that I was sorry, but I was not going to be forced to tip a certain amount, while getting less service. I might as well walk up to a counter in the food court. I was not nasty to the man. It was not my idea of a full service restaurant.

    In the terminal renovations, they have decided to be even less passenger-friendly, by taking out the moving walkways. One long walkway has been replaced by a long central bar, where people can drown their sorrows of flying instead of getting a little leg relief.

  • Steve Rabin

    Or “since we had higher than expected demand, we will give you a voucher for a ‘free’ meal (up to $50, and good luck finding anything on the menu for less than $150) if you agree to eat dinner at around, say, breakfast time tomorrow.” But that voucher isn’t good at night or on weekends or any other time you might want to use it.

  • Blamona

    Too funny- I bet you had a blast writing it!

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Which airport?

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Probably due to some getting the idea from Tom Hanks’ character in Terminal on how to survive with little cash at the airport. :-)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    One of my all time favorite stories. While stuck at Heathrow on delay, British Airways gave me a wonderful voucher and I foolishly used it on McD’s. I don’t know why I didn’t choose something more local, but I got this story out of it.

    I ordered a full big mac meal and the fries were COATED with this crystalline substance (salt.) I got a heart attack looking at it and the gal informed me that there was more salt if I needed it.

  • Carchar

    Newark – EWR

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Hehehe. I haven’t been in that region for a long time. Dulles and Reagan are actually quite nice to fly out of. Fort Lauderdale had some wonderful restaurants at affordable prices (albeit, the terminals are a bit old. But there are some wonderful 80’s style art-deco lighting I hope they don’t renovate away!)

    Newark and JFK are airports I would avoid because they have a rep as being huge theft holes (luggage and TSA screening theft).

  • judyserienagy

    THIS is hysterical! Really brings home how this current mess with the airlines got started … one little bit at a time, never backing down, always progressing with more fees. Gotta hand it to the airlines, that’s for sure. I’m sure every airline board meeting begins with a champagne toast to the idiot customers who continue to purchase their product.