Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Coffee, Tea or Fee, Sir?

The hills are alive this week to the sound of airlines charging fees for things that were previously part of the fare.

The New York Times outlined the breathtaking range of fees charged by US carriers in an article entitled At Least the Airsickness Bags Are Free, including charges for coffee, blankets and pillows.

Not that Australian airlines have been slow to charge their own fees for an increasing number of services. Just this week, Virgin Blue announced that checking a bag into the hold would cost an extra $8 when arranged online, rising to $20 at the airport.

It reminds me that there are two types of fees that organisations charge: straightforward fees intended to make a profit, and punitive fees which are intended to dissuade customers from taking a certain course of action. The first type the company wants many people to choose, the second seeks to save the company from spending money on something it'd rather not offer.

And this is where it gets confusing. It seems obvious that a profit-making fee should
roughly reflect the cost of the service provided, with a reasonable profit margin. On the other hand, a "dissuading fee" should obviously be prohibitively high.

But when does one type become the other? Banks in Australia have recently come under fire for their high fees for dishonoured cheques, overdrawn accounts, etc. You can imagine that these fees started out as a deliberate deterrent, but have since morphed into a tidy little profit-maker.

But back to the airlines. The NY Times notes with some surprise how accepting passengers have been of the new charges; there have been no consumer revolts in the air. They attribute it in part to people having little alternative. But I think it's something different: that most of these fees (so far) are for optional services.

After all, on a short-haul flight there's no need for food and drink (and it's airline food, people!), and there's the possibility of taking your own. You can live without a pillow or blanket, can read a book instead of paying for a film, and survive with unreserved seating rather than paying for the use of a particular seat. You can even stick to cabin luggage, if you master my mystical "rule of three"!

As long as you can theoretically avoid the fee, you don't mind it so much. You might even happily pay it, knowing that you had the choice to decline it. And with aviation fuel being so expensive, it seems fair that people stowing more luggage on the plane should pay more than those who don't.

So that's all good... so far. But how far will the airlines go? What remaining services will they decide to slap a charge on? Glance over the upcoming fee schedule of Air Profiteer...
  1. Advantageous Gate Fee. This adds a bit of breathless anticipation to the flying experience, much like that of a blind date. Customers pay this fee in the hope of getting a closer departure gate than 29D (maybe even the mythical Gate 1). At midnight the evening before the flight, the planes are allocated gates from 1 onwards, depending on what proportion of passengers paid the fee.
  2. Oxygen Mask Fee. For this fee, the customer receives a stainless steel face mask with a velvet rim in the event of an emergency, and a higher percentage of oxygen (other passengers receive more complimentary nitrogen).
  3. Special Edition Safety Video Fee. The customer views a special version of the safety video, featuring Brad Pitt as the man in the suit, Angelina Jolie as the woman clutching a baby and Sarah Michelle Gellar as the woefully-miscast Japanese horror film extra. With a special guest appearance by Angela Lansbury as the seatbelt fastener.
  4. Premium Peanut Fee. Passengers paying this surcharge receive a bag of peanuts which can be opened without the contents showering over the remainder of the cabin. Specially designed by NASA.
  5. Tedious Commentary Avoidance Fee. This charge exempts the passenger from having to listen to the captain's inane commentary about flight direction, flight duration, and the time at the destination. Instead, soothing Vivaldi is played through the headphones.
  6. Call Button Answer Fee. For this fee, a flight attendant will actually respond to the customer's call button when operated.
  7. Express Loo Fee. Passengers paying this fee will be given access to a special toilet which dumps fellow passengers into the stratosphere if they take longer than 10 minutes.
  8. Meaningful Security Fee. The passenger gets to bypass the most meaningless security measures enacted after 2001 by governments that wanted to show they were Doing Something. Toothpaste tubes and nail scissors are back on the menu!
  9. Rigid Seat Back Fee. For this fee, the seat back of the passenger in front of the paying customer is locked into the upright position for the duration of the flight.
  10. Edible Meal Fee. The passenger is served an edible meal. No, really.
Now why am I suddenly worried that the airlines will take this list seriously?