It seems as if everyone wants to be a low-fare airline these days.

Even the network carriers are revamping their product to make them look like low-fare airlines, with upstarts like Song and Ted taking to the skies.

The discounters’ bottom line is to offer low-priced travel to a certain destination, minus all the bells and whistles. Most of the time it’s cattle-car service and passengers end up feeling like a number. But they pay a fraction of the normal cost.

What I find so incomprehensible is that the managers at the full-service airlines have been caught so off guard. Why did they think this concept was certain to fail?

Let’s see… cheap tickets, increased frequency, little or no ridiculous penalties or restrictions?

Sounds to me like it would work.

Well, it has, and the growing forces of the no-frills airlines are eating into the major airlines’ profits and intensifying their losses.

I see it like the concept of the full-service gas pumps as opposed to self-service. How many people today use the full-service stations? While there are still a few who do, the masses generally flock to the do-it-yourself, cheap gas.

So on your next flight you might have to take a sandwich, or get treated a little more rudely. At least you don’t feel slammed by some silly restriction and you have saved a great deal of money in the process.

I was floored when a friend recently bought a full-fare ticket to Europe for a mere $185, but then a week later was obliged to book a trip only 400 miles away costing him $500. He couldn’t go to another airline because no other airline could meet his itinerary needs. This is where the low-cost carriers are starting to come in and make the “big guys” accountable.

Here’s a well-known story that puts all of this into perspective:

If The Airlines Sold Paint

Customer: Hi. How much is your paint?

Agent: Well, sir, that depends on quite a lot of things.

Customer: Can you give me a guess? Is there an average price?

Agent: Our lowest price is $15 a gallon, and we have 50 different prices up to $250 a gallon.

Customer: What’s the difference in paint?

Agent: Oh, there isn’t any difference; it’s all the same.

Customer: Well, then I’d like some of the $15 paint.

Agent: When do you intend to paint?

Customer: I want to pain tomorrow, it’s my day off.

Agent: Sir, the paint for tomorrow is the $250 paint.

Customer: When would I have to paint to get the $15 paint?

Agent: You would have to start very late at night in about two weeks. But you will have to agree to start painting before Friday of that week and continue painting until at least Sunday.

Customer: You have got to be kidding?

Agent: I’ll check to see if we have any paint available.

Customer: You have shelves full of paint! I can see it!

Agent: But that doesn’t mean that we have paint available. We sell only a certain number on any given weekend. Oh, and by the way, the price per gallon just went to $18. We don’t have any more $15 paint.

Customer: The price went up as we were talking?

Agent: Yes, sir. We change the prices and rules hundreds of times a day, and since you haven’t actually walked out of the store with your paint yet, we just decided to change. I suggest you purchase your paint as soon as possible. How many gallons do you want?

Customer: Well, maybe five gallons. Make it six, so I’ll have enough.

Agent: Oh, no, sir, you can’t do that. If you buy paint and don’t use it, there are penalties and possible confiscation of the paint you already have.

Customer: WHAT?

Agent: We can sell enough paint to do your kitchen, bathroom, hall and north bedroom, but if you stop painting before you do the bedroom, you will lose your remaining gallons of paint.

Customer: What does it matter whether I use all the paint? I already paid you for it!

Agent: We make plans based upon the idea that all our paint is used, every drop. If you don’t, it causes us all sorts of problems.

Customer: This is crazy! I suppose something terrible happens if I don’t keep painting until after Saturday night?

Agent: Oh yes! Every gallon you bought automatically becomes the $250 paint.

Customer: But what are all these “Paint on sale from $12 a gallon” signs?

Agent: Well that’s for our budget paint. It only comes in half-gallons. One $6 half-gallon will do half a room. The second half-gallon to complete the room is $20. None of the cans have labels, some are empty, and there are no refunds, even on the empty cans.

Customer: To hell with this! I’ll buy what I need somewhere else!

Agent: I don’t think so, sir. You may be able to buy paint for your bathroom and bedrooms, and your kitchen and dining room from someone else, but you won’t be able to paint your connecting hall and stairway from anyone but us. And I should point out, sir, that if you paint in only one direction, it will be $350 a gallon.

Customer: I thought your most expensive paint was $250?

Agent: That’s if you paint around the room and back to the point at which you started. A hallway is different.

Customer: And if I buy $250 paint for the hall, but only paint in one direction, you’ll confiscate the remaining paint.

Agent: No, we’ll charge you an extra usage fee plus the difference on your next gallon of paint. But I believe you’re getting it now, sir.

Customer: You’re insane!

Agent: Thanks for painting with us!

In the airline world, a new kind of paint store is revolutionizing the way people paint. If the big carriers don’t catch on in time, it could make the world of paint…thinner.

Considering who I work for (a major airline) it could make me thinner as well.

If Airlines Sold Paint is printed with permission. Copyright Alan H. Hess, 1998. All rights reserved.