Wall Street Journal’s McCartney: Airlines have gotten “carried away” with fees


Scott McCartney writes The Wall Street Journal’s “Middle Seat” column and is the author of the new book “The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.” With the travel season about to take off, I asked him for his thoughts on flying in the summer of 2009.

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Q: What should air travelers expect this summer?

McCartney: I think this will actually be a very good summer to travel, if you can afford it. The recession has lowered ticket prices considerably, left hotel rooms far more available at lower prices and reduced congestion at airports and in the skies so flights are running more on time.

The dollar has rebounded some, and so it’s a good year to venture overseas. Crowds should be smaller and merchants should be more anxious for your business. We may well look back on this year and say there was a window of opportunity when the airline system and major tourist destinations didn’t bog down as much under the weight of summer crowds and travelers actually had the upper hand.

I’m taking my family to Europe — tickets were about half the price of what I probably would have paid last year. Hotel rooms seem to have good availability using points or reasonable rates in dollars. I just think that if you are able to do it financially, it’s a great time to go.

Q: I really like the subtitle to your book, “How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.” What do you think is more important to travelers — dignity, sanity or intact wallet?

McCartney: Thanks. Full disclosure: It was my wife’s idea.

I think it depends on the traveler, but for most, the wallet is the bottom line. Travelers will endure a lot to save a few bucks — just look at the popularity of discount European airlines and the long bus rides, infrequent service, high fees, etc. that people put up with for a cheap fare. While indignities anger them and inane experiences do make them crazy, getting gouged is what really sends people over the edge with airlines.

I think to some extent it’s a reflection of the animosity travelers have toward airlines. Airlines do bad things to people, and people remember. Goodwill and warm consumer feelings get ruined when a bag is lost, a flight is canceled, a traveler is bumped, a crew times out leaving a planeload stranded. What’s more, airlines make the money part of the experience so difficult — changing prices, limited availability, etc, etc. You go to a car dealer to buy a car thinking that salesman is out to take as much advantage of you as possible, and you know you likely won’t get as good a deal as the guy next to you. You just assume that. And I think it’s much the same with airlines. Airlines battle their customers over money — not a good position to be in.

Q: I noticed that almost the entire book is dedicated to air travel. There’s a brief chapter on hotels and cruises. Why did you decide to emphasize air travel?

McCartney: You’re right — 29 pages on hotels and cruises in a 300-page book, so about 90 percent on airlines. There’s also stuff early on picking the right vacation and some general travel experience stuff.

The reason is that I believe the air part of any trip has the greatest potential for disruption. Vacations get ruined by the flight there or the flight home. Business travelers rarely lose contracts or have their lives turned upside down by hotels. Yet airlines dictate much of how they get their job done. The penalty for airline problems is severe for travelers. The airline ticket is a far more complicated transaction than renting a car or a hotel room. And airline-related issues stretch far: frequent flier programs, first-class upgrades, baggage service and fees, security and airport hassles–you name it.

I also believe that the airplane trip holds the greatest fascination for people. Soaring into the sky and traveling at 500 miles per hour still amazes us, and the operation of airlines today is enormously complex. I wanted to explain to people how it works — from how airlines price tickets to how the FAA operates the air-traffic control system. By understanding how things work, travelers are better prepared.

Bottom line: Flying is where people need the most help. The goal of the book is to help people improve their travels, and 90 percent of that does come on the airline side.

Q: How often do you fly, and if you don’t mind me asking, which loyalty programs do you participate in?

McCartney: I fly a couple of times each month. Not every week, but a mixture of long trips where I’m working on multiple stories and quick out-and-back trips to see a particular airline or report a particular angle.

I try to spread my flying out so I get to compare different airlines first-hand and try different hotels. I’ll take a trip just to try out a new airline and look for interesting innovations. I’m a member of the loyalty program at Delta, American, United, Continental, Northwest, US Airways, Southwest, jetBlue, AirTran, Starwood, Marriott and Hilton.

Q: When it comes to air travel, where do travelers lack understanding of the industry, generally speaking? Why do you think they don’t get it?

McCartney: Let me take the second first: They don’t get it because airlines do a poor job of explaining their business. I really believe there’s a major communications gap.

And I think it starts internally: Often airline managers don’t explain policies, decisions and practices well to their own employees. And that leads to lousy service. But it amazes me that there are business travelers riding the same airline every week who themselves run very complex businesses and they don’t understand a lot about why airlines do the things they do.

I think the lack of understanding comes on two fronts: the financial and the operational. Travelers often think airlines are jacking up fares and fees and somehow taking advantage of them when the airline is losing money on the ticket. It’s not like these companies are wildly profitable. But it goes back to the disparity that travelers face: sometimes a ticket costs $200; sometimes it costs $1,200 for much the same trip.

The penalties airlines impose seem irrational to consumers: $150 to change a ticket with a few keystrokes, plus the higher fare? Inconsistency leads to misunderstanding.

On the operational side, it’s also poor communication. The classic example: weather delays. Clear skies in New York, and the flight to Florida is delayed due to weather. You call your wife in Florida and she says it’s sunny and warm. Those lying airlines! The bad weather may be in North Carolina and that’s disrupted traffic up and down the East Coast, but airlines don’t take the time to explain.

Same with canceling flights — they’re just canceling because of light bookings! Most likely there is more to it than that, but the airline doesn’t explain. Same with lost baggage: No bag, where is it? The airline can’t tell you! That just increases anxiety. When will it get to me? The airline can’t say. How frustrating for the traveler!

Q: How are the airlines like the funeral home industry?

McCartney: There’s a good joke in here somewhere!

For many years one of my standard questions for airline executives has been, Is there any other industry that makes it so difficult to use its product? It’s fun to see them ponder that, and I really believe it’s an issue that is fundamental to the problems of the airline industry.

The many rules, complexities, penalties and difficulties of buying tickets and traveling by airline can discourage people from traveling. If your customers dread it, it’s not good for business.

Only one airline executive has given me an answer: Mike Gunn, the former marketing chief at American, once suggested health care was more complex and frustrating. He had a point. Perhaps that’s not the company that any industry wants to keep, right?

When I posed the rhetorical question in the first draft of the manuscript, my editor at Harper, Ben Loehnen, had an answer of his own: funeral homes. He did it for a chuckle, and I liked the comparison. On one level, funeral homes have opaque and confusing pricing, a reputation for gouging people who need services at the last minute and plenty of complexity and different service levels. On another level, you have to die to actually become a customer. So looking at it that way, it’s clearly more difficult.

Q: Is there a right way and a wrong way for an airline to charge a la carte fees? Can you give me and example of an airline that does fees right?

McCartney: I think value for the fee charged is the key, plus full disclosure of what the fees are and what you get. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to charge extra for United’s Economy Plus seating, for example. You get extra legroom, and for some people, having that option is terrific.

On the other hand, I think it’s ridiculous for US Airways and Northwest to be trying to charge for choice seats — aisle or window seats at the front of the airplane. Worse, it’s outrageous for Spirit to be charging fees for routine services that add no value – a fee to buy a ticket online instead of at an airport, for example, or even a fee to reserve a seat.

I also think airlines needs to look closely at how high they’ve raised some fees. As I mentioned, $150 to change a domestic ticket when you also charge any fare difference seems extreme. Is it fair to charge $100 to redeem a free ticket when you have marketed and enticed your customers into believing they can redeem miles for free travel? If I carry a pet into a cabin myself I’m charged $150 on Delta. If your luggage weighs 60 pounds, it’ll cost you $250 round-trip on United but only $100 on American and Continental.

Airlines have gotten carried away with some fees, I believe, because customers have begrudgingly accepted them and paid them. But in the long run there is a cost to those companies. If consumers don’t believe the price was fair, they may go elsewhere next time.

Q: Are airlines regulated enough? Where would you like to see the tighter regulation? And where do we need the government to take a more “hands-off” approach?

McCartney: I don’t think government should try to regulate customer service beyond the traditional regulatory role in any business: discrimination, accessibility, anti-trust, etc. Let the marketplace take care of companies with poor service. But I do believe government has a role in regulating safety, and the FAA often isn’t doing enough.

The Colgan/Continental commuter crash hearings at NTSB this week are a sickening reminder. Today, for example, an FAA safety inspector testified he knew of systematic safety violations. But did he do anything? Apparently not. It appears as though that captain should have never been in that seat flying that plane. That’s a major regulatory failure, and obviously a company failure, that killed 50 people.

Q: You seem to strongly endorse participating in an airline’s frequent flier program. Is there anyone who would not be well-served by collecting frequent flier miles?

McCartney: If infrequent travelers can supplement a mileage account with a credit card and other purchases, then it’s probably worthwhile. But if you really don’t fly enough or buy enough, or prefer to take credit-card rewards in some other form like cash or points rather than miles, then the frequent flier program can work against you.

Loyalty is the question. The risk is you’ll be trying to build miles and purchase a higher-priced ticket or opt for an inconvenient itinerary just to stick with a preferred airline. If you don’t travel regularly, you’ll pay more than if you weren’t a member of a program, and so that free ticket you hope to someday score, and may never get because of capacity restrictions, may cost you quite a bit of money. For many people, mileage-based credit cards may not be the best choice as well.

Q: If you could change one thing about the airlines, what would it be? And if you could change one thing about airline passengers, what
would it be?

McCartney: Allow me to offer two for each.

On airlines, I’d simplify the business everywhere I could. A contract of carriage at many airlines is longer than an IRS Form 1040.

Secondly, I’d get airline CEOs and their boards to recognize that it’s not their financial prowess or legal intuition that matters, it’s their leadership ability. Airline CEOs are football coaches — though most don’t recognize that or aren’t comfortable with that). The successful ones are able to rally the troops and excite the customers.

Throughout my tenure covering airlines, the one constant has been that when the CEO loses labor, it’s over. The job will end. The CEOs who can effectively communicate plans, motivate the troops and get employees working together have run good airlines. The ones who lose trust, don’t inspire, can’t articulate clear goals and try to run the business as though it was a bank or telephone company always fail. It’s a different kind of business, and I think it requires different skills than just being strategically smart in the boardroom.

On passengers, I’d love to see less brow-beating by road warriors. Many of use have the mentality that the airline can do something better for me if I make a big-enough stink or yell at the airline employee until I win. And too often, it works!

It’s the obnoxious traveler who holds up the line for the rest of us, or insists on claiming that one last seat when there’s some poor kid with no status trying to get Home. Travel is tough, and travelers could do more to take care of each other.

To that end, my second simple change: Every passenger would ask first before reclining a seat back into someone’s lap. Space is tight, and too often a reclined seat makes life far worse for the passenger behind you. A reclined seat means they probably can’t open a laptop screen, for example. I think people should turn around and say something – “I’d like to recline my seat, just wanted to warn you…”

Maybe a compromise can be reached so there is still room for the laptop? Maybe the courtesy will prevent the passenger behind from kicking and kneeing the seat. Or my personal favorite, opening a newspaper so it brushes the head of the recliner.

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 . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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