Legacy carriers abandon their back-of-the-plane customers at their own risk

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Customer service has been suffering since American Airlines began charging for checked bags and the rest of the legacy carriers jumped on the ancillary fee bandwagon. Now, airlines are abandoning their coach passengers when it comes to their frequent flier programs. Every improvement for business class and first class passengers is coming at the expense of coach passengers.

More legroom in the front of the plane translates directly to less legroom in the back of the plane. Higher baggage fees translate to less overhead bin space in the back of the plane. Higher baggage fees are now being combined with worse checked baggage statistics, which only exacerbates the carry-on baggage problems. Front-of-the-plane meal services have become more lush as back-of-the-plane meals and snacks have been eliminated.

As airline frequent flier programs shift from providing benefits based on miles flown to amount of money spent, both individuals and companies need to reassess the impact on these programs. Airlines have been making the gulf between worst and first larger and larger over the past half-decade; now the most important part of frequent flier mileage programs is not earning free flights, but earning relief from having to fly in coach.

“I’m loyal to Delta. Loyalty means free bags checked, free upgrades, and sometimes free changes of an itinerary. Loyalty means I stuck with Delta through the tough years, but now that they’re on their feet financially, they’re telling me, ‘oh, we really don’t care that much about you as a loyal flier anymore. All we care about is your money,’ ” Mr. Sommer [a technology consultant who flies lots of miles and earns high elite status] said.

When money is thrown into the equation and cheap flights are eliminated as currency for entering the world of the elite fliers, the world of frequent fliers changes. So far, both United and Delta have dipped their toes into the world of pay-more-and-you-get-more benefits. You can bet that American is watching closely.

If the airlines can keep their “capacity discipline” (i.e. their refusal to compete with each other) intact and keep planes flying at almost 90 percent capacity, they will be able to squeeze even the most frequent of fliers into spending more to avoid the service abyss that coach has become. But, even in a constrained system like our current oligopolistic system, competition can grow again when the big players in the airline system abandon the masses.

Once upon a time, Southwest Airlines was considered Spartan with only coach seating. Now, the other airlines have been eliminating coach amenities one-by-one. Southwest’s service is almost luxurious compared to what one is now getting from American, Delta and United in the back of the plane.

The biggest bargain at Southwest is “Bags Fly Free.” This translates to faster boarding processes and more room in the overhead storage bins. Southwest still has peanuts and a couple of snacks for coach passengers. Now, when legacy carriers have all but eliminated free pre-assigned coach seating, Southwest’s boarding process is making more sense. As legacy carriers are forcing more and more passengers into having to pay extra to guarantee that they aren’t stuck in a middle seat, it is making life more difficult not only for the regular coach passengers, but for families as well.

Mr. Mayo, also a frequent business traveler, said that he sometimes flies one of the big three network airlines like Delta, but prefers to take Southwest Airlines whenever he can. He talked about another annoyance that travelers who buy basic coach fares encounter routinely when booking a flight these days: the unavailability of seat assignments at the basic fare. Instead, airline booking sites typically offer customers an upsell to seats that are available — for a fee.

Airlines are walking a tightrope. As they scale back coach services and make membership in their elite frequent flier levels more and more expensive to attain, the major carriers are playing into the hands of low cost airlines. It appears that legacy carriers may be following a path to only flying high-paying customers and abandoning the masses of leisure travelers. That would be unsustainable from a business point of view.

Someday, balance will have to come back to this aviation marketing system. Airlines will have to start providing customer service even to the hoi polloi.

Even bottom-feeders like Spirit and Allegiant (who prey on the unsophisticated travelers who do not realize the dangers of flying with carriers operating bare-bones route systems and schedules) will be able to grow and provide more consistent service. Small changes, over time, in their business models will make them comparable to the legacy carriers.

Or, perhaps, I should say slashed service by the legacy carriers will make even ultra-low-cost-carriers seem not so Spartan.

The more the legacy carriers advertise their upscale products in magazines and on TV, the more legacy carriers parade the unfortunates, relegated to the rear of the plane, past first-class passengers being served champagne while the unfortunates shuffle to the rear of the plane to fight for overhead storage space, and the more legacy carriers eliminate customer service and squeeze coach passengers, the sooner flier backlash will come.

What are your thoughts? Will the dearth of customer service for coach passengers result in a backlash against legacy carrier mistreatment of their passengers? Will the changes in frequent flier mileage programs make them less valuable to the majority of passengers? Will the legacy carriers eventually kill their golden goose?

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    I don’t see it happening. Meaning I don’t see a backlash happening. People in this country prove, time and again, that they’re willing to put up with anything for a cheaper flight. You could stack them on slabs, like bodies in a morgue, and they’d be lining up to get tickets. Then they’d crow about how they flew from DC to LA for only $59.

  • Roadrunner

    All of which is why the Federal government must step in and regulate minimum seat width and pitch….

  • Nevsky2

    The only way to end this oligopoly is to permit foreign carriers to operate in the US as long as they use US crews when flying point-to-point within the US. Perhaps there should be minimum comfort and free baggage requirements for foreign carriers so they would have to offer a service that the legacy carriers have given up.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    I have to agree with Lisa. If Americans REALLY cared about service and quality, Wal-Mart wouldn’t be full of hordes of people daily. Likewise, everyone likes to complain about Spirit, yet they’re consistently profitable. I once had a relative come down to visit us from Chicago that flew Spirit, and complained incessantly the entire time she was here about how horrible they were and how she would never fly them again. So what did she and her husband fly the next time they came to visit? You guessed it, Spirit. And whenever their friends and relatives come from India and need to fly somewhere else, they put them on Spirit. Because “Spirit is cheap”. You can make the charge that people living in hubs are forced to fly one airline, but nobody is forced to fly Spirit. They compete on routes operated by the legacies and/or Southwest, yet daily, throngs of people not only choose to fly with them, but keep coming back despite their poor service so they can save a few bucks. So yeah, I’m highly skeptical that the angry mobs that are screaming about seat pitch and devalued FF programs will actually go out and do anything about it.

  • Carchar

    The answer to your questions is a resounding, “No!” Backlash will only occur when passengers start dying in droves from maladies attributed to plane travel!

  • orsay

    I couldn’t agree more! Amazing but true! If American people allow politicians to get away with the crap that policies that harm them, why would they care about this issue!

  • DustyW

    Have you noticed that Amtrak’s ridership has increased every year? Gosh … I wonder why?? Admittedly, because I’m retired, it’s easier for me to take an extra day or two to travel by long-distance train, but I’m fed up with the outrageous and uncaring treatment doled out by the airlines. On Amtrak, I travel in comfort, receive competent and friendly service, get very good meals and equally good conversation in the dining and lounge cars, and arrive relaxed and refreshed. Oh … and my bags travel free!

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Dusty, I think the TSA also has something to do with that (although the agency’s odious VIPR teams have infested all forms of transportation, including trains, they’re still not very common). I, too, love taking Amtrak and am happy to give them my money.

  • Bill___A

    The problem is that the world is being taken over by finance people who only look at things from a very limited perspective. They may be good at some things, but other things they really suck at.

    Furthermore, the TSA certainly doesn’t help matters. After having seen the way the lines go at LAX – I haven’t seen anything that screwed up since my first trip to an East African airport – there isn’t much hope for a pleasant experience. Other countries seem to accomplish this much more easily (and no, I am not talking about the non passport checking Malaysians).

  • whatexit

    Legacy carriers are being squeezed by their high union labor costs and the volatile nature of fuel pricing. It all adds up. Who gets the residual effect? The consumer.

  • bayareascott

    High union labor costs? The legacies are constantly forcing cutbacks on front-line employees, and when they can’t, then they outsource to vendors with even lower wages and no benefits. Vendors who have no investment whatsoever in your travel experience. All this when the airlines are raking in profits? Bill has it much more correct.

  • whatexit

    Yes. High union labor costs. And the restrictive work rules which discourage cross training for other jobs.
    Low cost carriers don’t have to deal with unions.

  • Karen Kinnane

    No thank you, the Federal Government already over regulates too many things which are not the business of government down to forbidding the sale of incandescent light bulbs which I happen to like to use. This is between passengers and the airlines, and the government can keep out of this. If you don’t like the seat space you have choices: buy an upgrade, buy first class, take the train, drive your car, don’t go, you have options. Americans mostly, myself included, want CHEAP AIRFARE. We’ll put up with a lot to get it.

  • Tim Reed

    I’m sorry but I am a Delta million miler and I always pay more for a ticket to be in First class. I don’t upgrade

  • Peter

    Beware! Light bulb truther!

  • malbarda

    Delta is a non-union airline. Just sayin’…

  • TMMao

    Incandescent bulbs were invented by Edison, while CFL and LED bulbs are alien technology designed to control our minds.

  • bayareascott

    Perhaps you’d prefer a third world country where service workers get paid so little they can barely afford to live and eat. Oh wait, we are on that track in this country now too!

  • whatexit

    I knew that tired old pro union nonsense would pop up sooner or later.
    Get this straight. NO ONE is underpaid, in the sense that if their occupation does not fulfill their financial needs they have choices. One of which is to go to their employer and remind state their value it the company and negotiate for a pay increase. Another choice would be to go to an employer that appreciates their skills more.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Oh, yeah, because the economy’s so great, there are so many job opportunities, and underpaid workers have so much power.

  • bayareascott

    You have a little studying to do about labor history in this country. Most Western nations have far better benefits than workers in this country. Employers do not often negotiate fairly which is one of the primary reasons for collective bargaining. Most likely you are of those employers that would prefer to deny people a living wage or health care benefits to line your pockets a bit more. At least, you write like one.