Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"But this is a CHEESE SHOP!"

My favorite Monty Python episode, for those old enough to remember the venerable and wickedly witty British TV show, featured the hilarious Cheese Shop skit. John Cleese, overcome by hunger after reading boring old Sir Robert Walpole (de facto first Prime Minister of England), enters a cheese shop for a bite, eagerly anticipating the consumption of its wares.

However, after asking for a score or more of cheeses, the names of which he impressively rattles off without breaking a sweat, the owner, played by Michael Palin, informs Cleese that in fact he doesn't have any cheese to sell.

"But this is a CHEESE SHOP!" exhorts an exasperated Cleese.

"Oh, yes sir! The finest in the district!" replies Palin, an insane grin on his face.

At which point Cleese threatens to shoot Palin if he doesn't provide him with the sole product his place of business ostensibly purveys.

I often feel as frustrated about air travel on the so-called "majors" in 2008 as Cleese did about not finding cheese in a cheese shop. The majors continue to shrink their capacity, taking away more of the very service they are in business to sell.

It's bad enough that there are few meals or snacks on board these days, and a dearth of pillows and blankets (excepting Continental), and that flights are chronically late 24/7/365, no airport excepted. But now, with capacity cuts, there is EVEN LESS of that poor service to endure and later complain of! What are they thinking?

And, even more absurd than the Monty Python skit, airlines like American are now tacking on extra charges for basic services like checked luggage, including the first bag. That's tantamount to the cheese shop owner charging customers extra for the plastic tray, wrap, and paper bag in which to package the cheese (if they had any to sell).

What's behind this shrinking trend? The people who run the majors believe that they are not able to directly pass along their rapidly rising fuel costs to their customers in the form of higher fares. They are afraid that customers won't fly their airline if they do, or not fly at all.

Honestly, it's a mystery to me why they are unable to muster the corporate courage to do that. The nation's gas stations and oil companies do it with impunity. Gas prices go up almost daily now, sometimes a dime a gallon.

Yes, car travel is down a bit because of it, but we are still buying a lot of gas. Would air travel diminish considerably if fares rose as fast as gas prices do? Perhaps, but capacity is being removed even without major fare increases. At least with fare increases the remaining flights would be profitable. Why nickel-dime us with stupid schemes like charging for the first checked bag? Why not be honest about it and just increase the fares?

I believe that business and leisure air travel, once a privilege and a luxury, is now a necessity. The premise that raising fares to cover costs will drive away a vast number of customers (that is, actual shrinkage in overall demand for air travel) is outmoded.

The other fear among the majors is losing business to competitors like Southwest and Jet Blue based on significant differentials in cost per available seat mile (CASM). But that cost delta has been narrowing. If the majors ever close the gap, they will be able to nimbly raise fares and promptly recover their costs, just as oil companies and gas stations do.

Until then I remind readers of the excellent and thorough New York Times analysis of the airline industry a couple of years back in which an authoritative economist described commercial air carriers in this country as merely "cash accumulators for other constituencies." He meant, of course, that airlines take in great mountains of cash but just redistribute it to their vendors and creditors.

With puny fare increases in sluggish response to rising costs, the majors chronically operate at low, or no, margins. They just collect a lot of cash and pass it along. That picture of the industry is still valid today, unfortunately.

And their response to date continues to be the wrong one, that is, providing less and less cheese in their cheese shop.

Where is John Cleese when we need him?


Blogger ScottDarth said...

Hear, hear!

I just wrote American a nasty email that included this:

"I realize that this industry is a monkey-see, monkey-do industry, but YOU are the first -- the leader -- in bringing this absurd $15 per first bag charge, and for that, I will no longer be booking future travel on AA.

"If fuel prices are out of control, I am a lot more understanding about a higher fuel surcharge or a -- [dramatic music inserted here for effect] -- FARE INCREASE, than I am about having to pay $15-50 for baggage each way, and $6 for a sandwich."

I'm a lot more likely to quit flying if I am led to believe the fare is $299 and it really winds up being $450 before its said and done, than I am if they just tell me it's $450 up front.

Thanks for affirming that there's more than one of us thinking that way.

6/06/2008 7:25 AM  

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