There’s a lot not to like about flying these days. Airport security screening is a colossal waste of time that doesn’t make anyone any safer. Airplane seats are smaller and planes are fuller, which brings us all that much closer to the inevitable squalling, temper-tamper-throwing crybaby in the next row. And here I’m just talking about the adults on board.
Adults like Matt Foley whose complaints were deemed serious enough for the Washington Post to highlight in their article Gripes about air travel have some people swearing off certain carriers.
Matt Foley’s breaking point was the coffee. He wanted a cup of joe on a recent Frontier Airlines flight from Washington to Denver, and a flight attendant asked him for a credit card. ‘A buck-ninety-nine for coffee?’ he says. ‘Really? To charge for nonalcoholic drinks almost made me scream.'”
The truly remarkable thing about Matt’s complaint is how familiar it feels to anyone who’s ever taken a commercial flight. But to someone who never has, surely the criticism sounds ridiculous. That’s because it is. Matt wants a cup of coffee and doesn’t think he should have to pay for it. None of us would ever walk into a Starbucks expecting a free cup of coffee. Why do we expect them on our flights?
The answer is simple. We expect them because we’ve been conditioned to expect them. Over many decades airlines have plied their passengers with all kinds of extras. And it’s not just coffee we’ve come to expect on our flights, but pillows, blankets, entertainment, snacks, and even entire meals.
And while we’ve gotten used to having those things included in the price of our ticket, it’s a mistake to think that they were ever free. Every single thing a business does for us is factored into its price. Bundling the services together under one fare doesn’t make any of them free, even if it wrongly gives that impression.
And there’s a real downside to all the faux freebies. When businesses bundle a bunch of services together consumers have no choice but to pay for the whole package regardless of whether they want all those products or not. It’s like when we pay for basic cable and get the Lifetime Channel for “free.” Score!
Now it may be true that the small percentage of people who use all of the services in a given bundle really do get a good deal. But most of us end up paying extra for a bunch of stuff we won’t use and don’t value.
In that sense Matt Foley’s outrage is justified. He’d grown accustomed to getting his airline beverage subsidized by the non-coffee drinkers on his flight. Now he’s being asked to pay for what he consumes so everyone else can fly more cheaply.
And that pretty much explains every complaint raised by the Washington Post article. People are pissed because airlines are charging for all kinds of optional services they used to just bundle into their flat fare.
Take, for example, the strange case of Crystal Strange who grouses to the Washington Post that she was “first charged for her checked stroller and then dinged her for overweight baggage as well. ‘We had to take all our bags apart and re-pack’ for being a couple of pounds beyond the limit, she remembers. ‘We were still charged an overweight baggage fee.’”
Leaving aside the trivially simple solution to Crystal’s problem of just packing less crap, why does she think an airline should ship her overweight bags and stroller to her destination free of charge? FedEx wouldn’t do that. More likely they’d quote her a price of several hundred dollars for same-day delivery of the same exact stuff.
And they’d charge that much because it’s expensive to fly heavy things across the country. In addition to the cost of fuel and the cargo space needed to haul it all, there is also an extensive infrastructure required to physically move bags from the check-in counter to the destination carousel.
Rollercoaster rides for your roller bag don’t come cheap
Someone needs to pay for all of that. Crystal apparently thinks that her fellow passengers who didn’t check a bag should chip in so she can check one of unlimited size and weight at no extra cost.
And she thinks that way because that’s exactly how airlines have operated for as long as any of us can remember. By including “free checked bags” in the price of every ticket, airlines essentially overcharge light travelers for the benefit of pack rats.
That’s finally starting to change, and I’m delighted. Instead of being forced to pay for every single thing the airline offers, now I get to choose which services I want and only pay for the ones I value. The result is some truly amazing airline deals.
Of course exploiting the new system takes more work than simply buying the cheapest fare. If you ignore the various rules and restrictions you can easily experience some nasty surprises. And that seems to be where at least some of the complaints arise. You really do need to read the fine print.
But when you do, it’s hard to look at actual airfare pricing and see anything other than great value.
Over the last twelve months we’ve taken a total of 14 flights and flown nearly 24,000 miles. One of the main reasons we’ve flown so much is because it was often less expensive than traveling to the same city by bus or train. One international flight, for example, cost us a mere $34 per ticket.
Our flights were so cheap, in fact, that they were far less expensive than driving the same distance. Assuming we had an average American car (24 MPG) and paid an average price for gasoline ($2.69) the cost for just the fuel is a little over 11 cents per mile. AAA estimates that the total cost of operating an automobile including depreciation, maintenance, insurance, and every other expense is 58 cents per mile. Meanwhile, our flights cost us each just 9 cents per mile, or about one-sixth the price of driving.
So what’s there to complain about?