Why the Spirit Doesn’t Move Me…and Other Lessons from Air Travel

It seems every time you turn around, an airline is trying to find another way to charge passengers to use their services.

The latest episode involves Spirit Airlines’ recent decision to charge passengers for carry-on luggage. This comes after most airlines have adopted the policy that charges all but their best customers for checked luggage.

I understand the need for airlines to find a way to make money, but really, guys, this is bordering on the absurd. What’s next–pay toilets? Fees for oxygen consumed? How about weighing us all before we get on the plane and charging us for the amount of fuel it takes to transport us? Extra fees for being furthest away from a screaming child? (Wait, they already do that–it’s called Business Class.)

This is not to say that the carry-on situation isn’t out of control. Granted, there are too many people trying to stuff too many bags into overhead bins. I was on a Delta flight not too long ago where one of the flight attendants was grumbling to another passenger about how  out of control she thought the carry-on situation was. “Why do these people need to bring so much onboard with them? They can’t possibly use all of that stuff during the flight!”

The passenger quietly explained to her that it was not so much about bringing things onboard to *use* during the flight but that people didn’t want to either pay for their luggage or spend the time waiting for it when they land, or worse, have their luggage not make it to the final destination when they did. She didn’t quite understand that perspective.

And, there, dear friend, lies the rub.

Our flying experience has already been picked apart and made more complicated by the TSA in a post-9/11 world. We’ve had to adjust to that. However, most airlines seem to be doing their best to remind us how difficult we as customers make their lives, and how much of a burden we are putting on them by actually insisting that they get us from point A to point B, on time, with our luggage, and in reasonably good spirits.

What they’re forgetting is that *we* are the customers–we are the ones who pay their salaries, and without us, they’re out of business.

Now many of us may be forced to fly on airlines that treat us with disdain, simply because we have no other choice. (Try to find a reasonable schedule into Atlanta that doesn’t include Delta, for example). That doesn’t mean we like it or that they aren’t doing a marvelous job of creating massive customer satisfaction. We may not be able to do anything about it today, but someday in the future when an alternative appears, we will be beating a path to the door of Someone Who Doesn’t Treat Me Badly, Inc.

Spirit may have taken this to the extreme, but they’re not the only ones doing this. United now charges extra to be in the premium part of coach (the part where you actually have room for your legs), and will actually leave this section empty and squish passengers in the back of the plane if they choose not to pay for the privilege of real circulation during a flight.

Of course there are those who continue to resist the short-term pressure to bleed every penny from their passengers for every little thing. Southwest still doesn’t charge for checked bags and Virgin and JetBlue offer extra little things that aren’t added to your ticket price. None of these airlines are perfect, but at least they’re trying.

It’s not the spirit of air travel that’s changed–it’s the way airlines are approaching their customers that’s gone downhill. The long-term winners will be those who remember that it’s the spirit of taking care of your customers that really moves us.

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