One of the emerging family traditions in our house is for my daughter and I to play a board game when she is visiting for a holiday. A couple of years ago, I got lucky and found the “Pittsburgh Edition” of Monopoly on Craigslist. Faith loves to play that edition because she gets to own Eat’n Park. We usually have to put a time limit on the game, as we tend to buy our favorite places and trade the same few hundred dollars back and forth.
But not this year.
On Christmas I talked Faith into taking a few risks, buying a few more properties, investing her last few dollars in houses and hotels. She was apprehensive. She felt insecure without a comfortable bankroll of play money.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” I asked. “You have to tear some houses down and mortgage some property. Real estate tycoons have been doing that for years.”
She listened. She invested. She bought, built and bullied me to the point that she possessed every $500 bill in the bank. At the end of the game, she had over $23,000. I had $63. One or two more rolls and she would have ground me into the dirt behind the Parker Brothers’ poorhouse. She didn’t take that step. She let me walk away with my dignity, my $63 and The Civic Arena and Three Rivers Stadium (the Pittsburgh equivalent of Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues).
She should be ashamed. If Monopoly was a game about airlines, she might be called for leaving money on the table.
That’s what happened at Jet Blue.
Jet Blue was known for providing a quality customer experience. They were letting people check bags for free, giving them room to almost stretch their legs, giving them a comfortable seat to sit in. They were putting 10 peanuts in each bag as opposed to the industry standard 8 (I made that up, but I’m probably close). They were also “leaving money on the table” according to their owners. During the course of the next year they will start charging for checked bags, strip the seats of some padding and scrunch them together a little closer.
According to the Jet Blue, they should be praised for not going as far as they could. They could charge even more for those bags. They could reduce legroom even further. They could strip even more padding out of those seatbacks. For that matter, they could outfit the plane with molded plywood seats like the desks we had in school. I can hear the President of Jet Blue now: “They sat in them for 12 years; surely a 3 hour flight isn’t going to kill anyone.”
“No, but it’s going to make air travel an even worse experience, and don’t call me Shirley.” (Sorry, one of the other things we do on holidays is watch movies like Animal House, Caddyshack and Airplane).
The goal of not leaving any money on the table is at odds with providing a quality customer experience but airlines don’t care. Airlines don’t have to care. Airlines don’t have to provide a quality customer experience because customers really don’t have an alternative.
Oh sure, we can drive, but how far can you stretch that option? One of the places I am known to fly is Iowa. That’s 24-hours by Jeep. An airline doesn’t have to be good to convince me to fly; they just have to not be awful. If I have to pay a little more to avoid awful, I probably will. They know that.
Airlines only have to jump a little higher than other airlines to convince me to fly with them. Sadly, collectively, they keep lowering the bar. One airline that starts charging for bags is taking a risk. Once several others start charging for bags, individual airlines can tweak the pricing, bundle free bags with other promotions and appear to compete. Once “every airline but yours” is charging for bags, you look stupid. Your passengers love you, but you don’t need their love as much as you want their money.
Recently, a lot of my travel has been along the eastern seaboard. I can drive to Boston, and I have the luxury of being able to take AMTRAK as far south as Washington, D.C. I take the train every chance I get. All AMTRAK has to do is nothing, and they can continue to improve their customer service relative to the airlines. Unfortunately, AMTRAK’s ultimate management is the U.S. Congress and, while they normally excel at doing nothing, in this case, I worry.
When I do have to fly, I pay the price. Legroom has been reduced to the point that my 6’ 2” frame doesn’t fit in the cheap seats. I can either pay to check a bag, or pay to board the plane early enough to be able to find space in the overhead bin. I buy overpriced snacks in the terminal, but then I feel guilty eating them next to the poor woman who only has eight peanuts. Especially since “next too” is a distance that used to imply that vows and rings had been exchanged. Airlines have narrowed some seats to 17 inches. Toilet seats are, on average 13-14.5” wide so, technically the airlines are still leaving money on the table.
I shouldn’t single out the airlines. They’re an easy target but I could write a similar post about my cable company, the State of CT, the oil industry, banks and most major league sports teams. Customer service has become a quaint idea or a commodity for sale; it’s no longer part of the transaction. We’ve moved on from “the customer is always right” to “the customer might have more money” and everybody wants that money.