Thursday, July 4, 2013

I Disagree: The Dumbest Fee in the Airline Business

I just read an article titled "The Dumbest Fee in the Airline Business" and I was anticipating a good laugh at a foreign carrier fee for oxygen masks or something like that.  Instead I read a long complaint about standby fees on domestic carriers. 

"Charging a change fee to fly standby when a passenger is already at the gate seems not only avaricious but also disadvantageous for the airline.  
The charge could easily mean that a plane departs with an empty seat, which immediately becomes worthless. It also denies the airline the flexibility that comes with an empty seat on the next flight. Possibly that seat can be sold. Possibly it can accommodate a passenger who missed a connection. Possibly bad weather or congestion or a mechanical failure will delay that flight, pushing all the passengers onto future flights, creating unforeseen complexities and expenses for the airline."
US Airways A320 Take Off
The core of the author's argument is that free standby lets everyone win.  Except it doesn't.  The airline wants to maximize their revenue and they do that partially by charging more for flexibility and comfort.  A passenger will pay to get on an earlier flight if they are at an airport, everyone's time is worth something.  The problem is, everyone's time is worth something different and the value of an individual's time changes depending the situation (business vs leisure travel or grumpy vs relax mindset). This makes it impossible for airlines to charge each person the most they are willing to pay for a service.  One option would be a reverse auction at the gate for standby passengers, but this is complicated and time consuming (big problem when the plane is loaded and ready to go).  So airlines just set a flat fee they think will maximize their revenue (this includes the cost of so called "unforeseen complexities and expenses for the airline").  A simple and intuitive solution for customers and staff.
US Airways Airbus
The fee system does mean airplanes will fly empty seats when there are passengers around to fill them.  Though it sounds like lost revenue, it isn't.  It's likely that many seats fly empty no matter what on a given day. Airlines don't have to fill every seat to maximize revenue either.  One seat sold for $400 on the day of travel is better than selling three for $125.  That's why same day bookings are so expensive, sort notice bookings are price inelastic.  Maximizing revenue can be done without filling every seat.

That's what happened in this situation, US Airways tried to maximize their revenue, not fill an open seat as an end to itself. The customer knew there was a fee when booking (or could easily have known) and decided to buy anyway, so there should not really be any disappointment (they are asking to receive something of value for free, how often does that happen?).  If flexibility is so important, buy a flexible ticket, if not, don't complain about not getting something for nothing.

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