Seth Godin uses the airlines as an example on his blog today in an entry titled Bait and Switch. I would not take issue with any of what he stresses, but I think he has missed an important underlying issue.
Seth (in part) talks about being prepared to take the “anger, resentment and brand disintegration” associated with surprise fees and other bait and switch short term tactics. Later he discusses separating the pain associated with being a customer from the pleasure.
But who gets which? Somewhere at headquarters, someone is in pain trying to figure out how to squeeze a profit past high fuel costs and fare wars. The bright idea about add-on fees for baggage, food and aisle/exit seats puts some revenue in to the transaction with little and sometimes no incremental expense. So, the product manager feels better.
In reality the pain has not gone away. It has simply been transferred to airport staff and customers. Anyone who has tried to check in with a human being at any airport in the last few years knows that this critical opportunity to start an experience well is woefully understaffed with people who are undertrained and poorly supported. Add to their already unreasonable load the need to apply new and inconsistent fee programs and the potential for travel rage goes through the roof.
Competition makes us want to cheat. We want to pass our pain on to someone else, even if we do not think about it that way. If the operating committee for American Airlines or the product managers for Delta or the pricing analysts for Air Canada had to spend 3 days a month at a ticket counter checking in customers, fly coach on their own airlines and stand in the same lines their customers do to check in, priorities would change in short order.