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?

Thursday 14 August 2008

Let the Post-Games Slump Begin

According to a story in eTurboNews this week, a new report has revealed that hosting the Olympics is not a surefire way to increase your tourist inflow. Rather the opposite.

Counter-intuitively, it appears that holding the Games actually acts as a negative, depressing the number of tourist arrivals from up to two years before the event, to two years after. Apparently the effect has been observed for every Games back to Barcelona in 1992.

The theory is that regular travellers stay well away from the host city for the entire run-up and the event itself, assuming (perhaps rightly) that the city will be in construction chaos and overpriced. It seems, too, that the aversion effect lingers for some time before the tourist masses feel it's safe to go there again.

This news made me curious about the Olympics before 1992; did the tourist interruptus effect happen then as well? Did the Nazi tourism minister curse the economic drop-off at Berlin in 1936? Did the tour operators of Antwerp in 1932, or St Louis in 1904, complain about the lack of punters?

And what about even further back? For the answer, let's cross to our commentators in Olympia, Greece, circa AD 393...

Sofia: "... so that's one embarrassed Senator who'll be careful not to worship both Dionysus and Aphrodite at the same time in future! Over to you, Yianni."

Yianni: "Thanks Sofia. In local news, there's been a big reaction to the Emperor Theodosius' decision to abolish the Olympic Games as of this year. The Emperor's spokesmen are claiming the decision was made for religious reasons, but some are saying there was another agenda at work."

Sofia: "That's right, Yianni. Apparently a recent report commissioned by the Olympia agora discovered that the Games have an adverse impact on the local economy, driving up prices and keeping visitors away for the rest of the year. Unidentified senior Senators say that local donors to the Emperor's military campaign funds applied pressure at the top."

Yianni: "And they now feel the way is clear for the development of Olympia as a tourist destination with a broader appeal. Outspoken businessman Dimitri Stathopoulos has, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, announced the development of a major theme park, Olympus World, which will feature rides and other amusements based on the mythology of the now-banished pantheon of gods. Detractors have pointed to his majority ownership of accommodation in the area, and his prominent role on the local council."

Sofia: "Mmmm. When we caught up with Mr Stathoploulos today, he had this to say: 'It's time for Olympia to catch up with the rest of the known world, and I'll bet my bottom denarius the place will be a thriving success long after the Olympics are forgotten. May God lay Olympia low with an earthquake if it isn't so.'"

Yianni: "Well, time will tell, Sofia. In other news, the annual fashion show in Mediolanum opened last night, and the fashionistas are saying that this year, barbarian chic is in..."

Back to the 21st century studio...

Thursday 7 August 2008

Happy Coconut Day!

I've been celebrating Coconut Day today. In the midst of cold, dark mid-winter Melbourne, you might think there were few coconuts to be spotted. And you'd be right.

But there are plenty of them hanging off palm trees in the Solomon Islands, and a delegation from that Pacific nation was keen to draw the attention of Australia's travel writers to them today.

Once a month the Melbourne members of the Australian Society of Travel Writers meet over lunch to hear the latest developments in the world of travel, and to network just a little.

This month's shebang was amid the grandeur of the Victorian Parliament, in the sinisterly named 'Room K' (is that like 'Room 101'?).

I realised I only knew a few random things about the Melanesian nation: the capital was Honiara, they'd had some civil conflict in recent years, and there was a big battle there in World War II. So I, like many in the room, was a fairly empty vessel into which info about the islands could be poured.

Turns out the Solomons are an interesting place, with some fascinating remnants of war history (including all manner of abandoned military vessels to be snorkelled through or marvelled at in museum compounds, according to the writer next to me). It also, of course, has the scenic beauty you associate with Pacific islands.

In conversation, some were quick to mention that the tourism infrastructure was still in development, and the resorts etc were small and simple - not big and flash like those in Fiji. But as we all immediately realised, that could be a huge plus for many travellers.

Sometimes it's good to have the "tourism infrastructure" just high enough for comfort, but low enough to ensure a genuine experience of the place and its people. And if the Solomon Islanders were anything like their Fijian cousins, they'd be pretty relaxed and friendly.

The slideshow certainly made it look attractive. And I liked their slogan, "Discover Somewhere Different". Straightforward, unpretentious, honest. I'll have to get there sometime. If you'd like a peek at what's on offer, here's a link to the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau's official website.

Coconut Day, by the way, was created to honour that versatile fruit, every part of which is customarily used by the islanders for some useful purpose.

And there's a great story we were told involving the Solomon Islands, a coconut and JFK; but I'll leave it to you to Google that one...