Then there was only Southwest

One of the last two airlines that focused first on customers gave up the ghost yesterday. JetBlue announced that it will start charging for checked bags in 2015 and will be cutting passenger leg room by roughly 5% beginning in 2016. In explaining these moves, airline execs pointed to the need to satisfy the interests of the financial community:

JetBlue said its new steps and improvements in other projects would increase annual operating income by about $450 million by 2017, including $200 million from the new fare classes and $100 million annually from the new seats. … While the discount carrier has earned plaudits from customers, its financial performance has lagged behind rivals. Analysts have pressed the carrier for bag fees and tighter seating, saying it gave fliers too much for too little. … [JetBlue CEO Robin] Hayes said in an interview that the changes will improve investors’ returns without scaring away customers. “We’re very proud of our customer-first model, but we need it to deliver a similar level of return as other models,” he said. “JetBlue to add bag fees, reduce legroom,” WSJ, 11/20/14 (paywall)

The promise of Boyd-type strategies, including lean and maneuver, is that by focusing on your culture and on continuously reducing waste, you can produce both a higher quality product and superior financial results. But it’s hard to do; much easier just to cut costs and add fees.

Airlines, other than Southwest, are rapidly approaching the point where the only reason they carry coach passengers is for the fees. The next logical step will be to offer to carry your suitcase to LA for $50 if you agree to drop it at the terminal and then get yourself to LA some other way.

Airlines are taking another step on the march to Imperial Class — instituting a super-premium class, filling the rest of the airplane with business class, and dropping coach entirely — by reconfiguring their frequent-flyer programs to reward how much you pay rather than how often or how far you fly. In a sense, it becomes a rebate program geared to big spenders instead of a loyalty program.

As Scott McCartny describes it in his column in today’s WSJ (paywall):

People who fly on expensive business-class and first-class tickets and have top-tier status in frequent-flier programs will see their accounts flooded with miles. At Delta and United, a frequent flier at the highest status level will earn 11 miles for every dollar spent, excluding taxes and government fees, up to 75,000 miles per trip. Most travelers riding in economy will earn a fraction of the frequent-flier miles they used to get. A traveler with no high-level status gets 5 miles for every dollar spent, so a $1,000 base fare for a 10,000-mile round trip gets half as many miles as it would earn today. (Emphasis added.)

The message, again, is: If you aren’t at least business class, we really don’t want you.

Except for the perqs of higher “status,” like upgrades and access to clubs, many travelers will be better off to search for the cheapest fare (don’t forget to include the bag fees!) on any available airline, and use the money saved just to buy another ticket. If you want to use the club, add in another $50/day (e.g., the daily rate at Delta’s Sky Club) for that, too. If you’re going less than about 300 miles, check out Greyhound:  plenty of legroom, leather seats, free wi-fi, no charge for suitcases, and you get your bags within 5 minutes of arrival.

What all this means is that airlines are doing exactly what you’d expect.  All cheng, no chi. I’m beginning to think that this is another example of entropy at work.

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4 thoughts on “Then there was only Southwest

  1. “airline execs pointed to the need to satisfy the interests of the financial community”

    Oh Really !? Is that so ?
    These are the ONLY interests, and OBJECTIVES of “The Financial Community”

    Maybe I’m an Idiot, and maybe one of you needs to explain this all to me ?

    And so here we are;

  2. This is one of the reasons why I think that it is important for the US and Canada to invest more in developing their railway systems.

    Rising oil prices, increased airline fees, perhaps the declining economy, and other various factors are all chipping away at airline travel for the average person.

    Also, the rapid (and I would argue self-inflicted, through the pursuit of neoliberal economics) decline of the American middle class means that even if airline tickets and fees were to remain relatively consistent, fewer people would be even able to affordable even the costs of economy flying.

    – Chris

    • A network of 400mph maglev trains, between NYC, Boston, Washington, Philly, Pittsburg,
      Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. Among other obstacles, Unfortunately, that’s the last thing on earth that the air travel lobby would want.

  3. Even worse, for the oil industry, and car rental companies, would be the said maglev
    network, equipped to transport you, with your car, to the destination city.

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