Old tricks won’t work

by Charlie Leocha on January 11, 2004

The machinations of the major airlines as they find themselves facing escalating competition from Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran and Frontier on their bread and butter routes is disheartening.

Once again, the majors are continuing to offer below cost airfares, mileage goodies and free flights to entice passengers to stick with the old-line carriers. Triple-mile deals here and a buy-two-fly-free here used to work, but not any more.

In the old days, upstarts were easy to swat down. They didn’t have the staying power to compete with majors on their home turf – their fortress hubs. Today, the upstarts are the only companies making a consistent profit. Today these seasoned low-fare carriers have plenty of staying power and are in a position to take increasing market share from the majors.

No one in the ranks of the majors – American, Delta, Northwest, Continental, United or US Airways – seems to have figured out that the airline’s core passengers, in the long run, aren’t interested in short-run deals and gimmicks. They want fair pricing that they can plan on.

Passengers are sick and tired of playing Airfare Roulette with the airlines calling the shots.

What kind of foolishness leads an airline to charge a customer $200 for a flight on Monday and then on Tuesday announce a bargain fare of $100? What kind of confidence does that instill in the airline’s customer? It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when it happens to me.

No wonder more and more passengers are waiting until the last possible minute to book flights and no wonder they opt for JetBlue and Southwest and their ilk whenever making long-range plans. They know they are not going to be screwed. And that means a lot.

Rather than streamline their operational systems, rather than negotiate changes in work rules, rather than abandon unused airport gates, rather than trim unprofitable routes that fly nose-to-nose with the low-fare airlines, the majors are serving up more of the same.

Delta is spending lavishly on new planes, more seat pitch, new image advertising, new on-board entertainment systems, new organic meals and new flight attendant training while offering lower fares matching JetBlue and Southwest.

At the same time Delta continues to charge outrageous walk-up airfares on their mainline flights. For these excessive airfares the passengers are getting old planes that don’t even have matching paint jobs, less space between seats, no meals at all or a bag of peanuts, spotty in-flight entertainment and an increasingly demoralized workforce.

American Airlines has a new 3-for-2 (fly twice and get a free flight anywhere AA flies – that means Europe and South America as well as the US – until April 15th) special that doesn’t make any economic sense from the point of view of profit. American claims that this promotion is highlighting the fact that they have a larger route structure and have been around a long time.

This promotion only irritates me more, since I already have plans to fly those routes at the end of April. This is another case of the airlines expecting us to go into contortions to meet their demands.

Why play this silly game when alternative airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran and Frontier have relatively simple, understandable airfares and treat passengers with intelligence and respect.

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