The Last Straw

The Wall Street Journal reports on my personal “line in the sand”:

This morning, US Airways began charging fliers $2 for bottled water and sodas and $1 for teas and coffees. First class members, trans-Atlantic passengers and a select group of others are exempt from the extra fees.

While I’m certainly not going to start shooting over this, I did utter quite a few choice words at the computer monitor. Also, I won’t book another flight on US Airways. I already have a few already booked — visiting family at Thanksgiving, for example — but those are the last.
Granted, I don’t fly all that often, so this might not mean much to them, but if they’re getting desperate enough to start charging people for water (particularly when the TSA confiscates all liquids from outside the security checkpoints), I think even my lack of flying might be noticeable.
When I was a child (not that long ago…), my father used to take me up to the cockpit when the plane was at the gate. The pilots would let me play with the controls, and would even push some test button that would cause a mechanical voice to say “PULL UP! PULL UP!” I’d even get a little pair of “junior pilot” wings. Silly, perhaps, but it’s a pleasant memory from my childhood.
I remember when all the airlines would serve food on flights more than an hour or two. When they stopped serving food on domestic airlines (or worse, charging separately for the meals), some part of my brain thought “I have a bad feeling about this…”
I knew that Foul Things Were Afoot when the airlines started charging for luggage. This, combined with the absurd restrictions on carry-on items implemented by the TSA, made me seriously consider cutting back on flying. I don’t go anywhere without at least one folding knife and my Leatherman. They’re not allowed in a carry-on, and I’m not going to pay $15 just to check a bag with the tools in it.
Charging for sodas and water crosses the line. It’s simply absurd — how much money could it possibly be saving them? US Airways charges $212 for a round-trip mid-September flight from Phoenix to San Francisco and back. This includes a weekend stay. Southwest charges $106 for the exact same flight. The staff at Southwest are more pleasant, sodas and water are free (and they still serve actual peanuts instead of the ridiculous “snack mix”, allergies be damned), and I’ve never had Southwest lose a piece of luggage.
If I were to drive, gas would cost about $135 (assuming $4.50/gallon gas, which is considerably more expensive than the current price of $3.70/gallon here in Tucson, and my Camry getting 30mpg on the highway, which it does) each way. That’s $230 in gas. Let’s round up to $300 to take into consideration wear-and-tear on the car, tires, maintenance, etc. That’s $88 more expensive than US Airway’s cheapest possible flight for those days…but I get to sit in a larger, more comfortable chair, eat and drink whatever I wish, enjoy the open road, and transport all the sharp and pointy objects my heart desires. If one counts the $15/bag fee ($25 for the second bag) per passenger, the difference is quite a bit less.
Granted, it’s a 12 hour drive from Tucson to San Francisco, but with a passenger or two, it’s much, much cheaper to drive than fly. Adding a couple passengers and a few bags to the car slightly reduces its fuel economy, but the cost-per-passenger-mile decreases greatly. The cost savings compared to flying totally offsets the slightly reduced fuel economy.
I know that jet fuel isn’t cheap these days, but rather than nickel-and-diming passengers, why not raise the ticket fare a little to make up for the increased costs? I doubt that most passengers would notice a $20 increase in their ticket price, but they’ll sure as hell notice when they need to pay that amount for drinks, food, and checked bags
If anything, they should try to differentiate themselves from their competitors by offering better service (comfy seats, free booze, etc.) for only a slightly increased fare.
Trying to become the Greyhound Of The Skies by racing other carriers to the bottom is a recipe for failure, espescially when carriers like Southwest are charging less, offering more, and still making money.

1 thought on “The Last Straw”

  1. Let’s not forget that with the ever increasing time spent at the airport prior to actual departure and the time spent waiting for luggage the time difference between flying and driving gets smaller. Add in the cost (or at least the benefit) of having a car while in your destination, and parking at the airport if you fly, and the price difference gets even smaller.

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