The skies are friendly; the passengers are not
Wed, 2008/05/21 - 22:05 by aargh

Talk about a leading indicator.

Last month (or was it earlier this month?) AA announced they would shutter their operation's at California's Oakland airport. No surprise at the time: Northern California is already well-served by San Francisco and San Jose airports, and it had been a while since Oakland was a cheaper alternative to those other two.

So I shrugged it off. Silly me.

Fast-forward to the present: AA's trimming its fleet (read: fewer flights, pricier tickets) and tacking on fees for checked baggage. Ostensibly, all this in response to pricier oil.

Granted, even if you adjust the price to a more respectable 2002- or 2003-era dollar, $130 is a lot of money for petrol. Economics 101 says this is the time to scale back on operations to save money and boost prices to calm demand. That, I can see.

What I don't see is the baggage fee.

It doesn't add up.

May I see some numbers, please? At $15 for one checked bag, and $25 for a second bag, how much money does the airline expect to reap from each flight? Only so many passengers check bags to begin with. Will that group's collective fees really salve AA's petrol-price wounds?

Maybe AA calculated the average suitcase uses $15 worth of fuel. Fair enough. Then why not weigh the bags and charge accordingly? I, for one, would lose my cheshire-cat grin when they slap a HEAVY tag on my luggage. I would also fear the day American starts to price tickets (and arrange seating!) based on body weight... but that's another story.

So will AA collect any meaningful money off that checked-baggage fee? Doubtful.

It really doesn't add up.

Hold your horses ... If you expect an angry mob to storm AA headquarters, expect a very small mob. Not every passenger qualifies for the $15 checked-luggage fee.

Per AA's website, elite-status travelers and their companions are exempt from the fee. (Maybe this is where I should stop, then?) As are passengers riding on first-class, business, and full-fare coach tickets. International travelers, too. The list goes on ...

When all is said and done, only the Occasional Domestic Travelers will have to cough up the fees. Fine, they're trying to make a quick buck off of summer travel. Except that airlines expect fewer people than normal to travel this summer, since ticket prices have surpassed cruising altitude.

Guys, I'm sure the idea looked good on paper. Really.

But we'll still get fed up

Deep down, then, the checked luggage fee is no big deal. Great, but let's not get cocky. AA may have unwittingly worsened the in-cabin situation. Spend any time in coach and you'll have to deal with the Mensa rejects who circumvent the luggage fee by overloading their carry-ons. (Raise your hand if you've ever seen someone bring on more than their fair share. Both hands if they stashed one of their bags in an overhead nowhere near their assigned seat.)

Unless gate agents toughen up and police carry-ons luggage we'll have riots as those who obey the size limits still don't have space for their bags. Heaven forbid the airline try to charge people the $15 fee for checking a carryon-sized bag, simply because their fellow passengers were greedy.

Time for something completely different

At this rate, I'll gladly pay $15 to check myself into the cargo hold. No food, no climate control (sounds like my last voyage on an MD-80), but plenty of space. Maybe, even in today's crowded planes, I can get a row to myself.

Reference links for the literate among you:

This page on the AA site describes the policy in detail. Note the "View Exceptions" link for the list of passengers exempt from the fee.

"American Airlines to Slash Jobs, Charge For Bags"

"American Cuts Flights, Adds Fees As Airlines Face Crisis"

"After AMR, the Deluge"
(This is Scott McCartney's regular The Middle Seat column for WSJ)

Thu, 2008/05/08 - 10:36 by aargh

Pick a lane, any lane ...

Some airports isolate a security checkpoint lane for premium passengers. The
relatively few people qualify for access tend to be experienced passengers
with a precision checkpoint routine. As a result the premium checkpoint lines
are shorter and move faster than their less-special counterparts.

Somewhere, waiting in line for the standard security checkpoint, are
experienced travelers who don't qualify for the elite lanes. They are a
subtle blend of bored, frustrated, and stressed, not unlike the the smart kid
who is light years ahead of his classmates. The smart kid makes a ruckus, the
other kids are equally distracted and frustrated as a result. People get by
but no one really wins.

Some time ago I pondered, Why not have separate security lines based on
experience, rather than status?
People who can handle the routine in
their sleep would shoot through. Travelers who still try to carry
aerosol cans and bottled drinks, well, the would get their own private hell.

The TSA has read my mind. Several airports nationwide, the latest being
Chicago's Midway, now use a "self-select" system with three groups of
checkpoints: beginner (green circle), intermediate (blue square), and
experienced passengers (black diamond). Rate yourself and choose your lane

(Extra credit to those who note that this was borrowed from ski trails, which
use these symbols to denote trails of beginner, intermediate, and advanced
levels of difficulty, respectively.)

Is this a perfect system?


Any such self-selecting system will fall victim to misguided egos or misfits.
Ever seen a slow car in the fast lane? Who hasn't seen some jerk push a full
cart through the grocery's "Ten Items Or Less" lines? I don't expect people
will become more diligent just because they're at an airport.

So the system's broken?

Not at all. So long as you accept that nothing's perfect.

I certainly don't condone people who break the rules, but let's face it: the
occasional infraction doesn't break the system. That's why, most of the time,
grocery store express lanes are still very efficient and highway fast lanes
usually live up to their names.

Self-selection yin finds its balance in community-enforcement yang. Honking
car horns in the fast lanes, shouts from angry shoppers in the express
checkout, glares from black-diamond passengers -- yourself included! -- all
clear out the occasional blockage in the fast-track.

Will the premium-passenger security checkpoints disappear as airports adopt the three-tier system?

We won't know until we see more data on the black-diamond lanes. Assuming the system properly self-selects, I would expect tomorrow's black-diamond lanes to be just a hair longer than today's premium lanes. I doubt an extra five or ten people in line would prove bothersome. Especially if the three-tier system were to exist at all airports, whereas the premium lines do not.

What's the next step in airport security?


Some stores have established self-service checkout scanners. Will the TSA
follow suit? Only time will tell ...

Further reading for the curious:

"Slalom course at Midway",0,...

"TSA revamps checkpoints at Love Field to ease stress, congestion"

Sat, 2008/05/03 - 19:09 by aargh

The evolution of food on AA's short- and mid-distance flights:

First, there was free fare. Maybe a box lunch of a sandwich and a cookie.

Next came "snack box": for a mere $3 you'd get something that was less than appetizing but still cheaper than buying food in the airport. (Cheaper food, mind you, though not necessarily better food.)

Now, we have a la carte: buy a sandwich, cookie, or chips.

One leftover from the snack box days is the airline's repeated request for exact change. Equally unimpressive was the flight attendant disappearing for over an hour before distributing everyone's change. Either you're prepared to run a till or you're not...

That gripe aside, the a la carte format is growing on me. For one, I'm not paying for items I don't eat, which I did with the snack box. (Did anyone eat that dodgy-looking sausage thing? or did the airline collect and recycle them to add some weight to the boxes?)

Two, it's nice to get a proper sandwich. Three, someone did their homework on the price point: $5 for the sandwich, $3 for chips, and $3 for the cookie. That's around what one would pay in the airport Starbucks, without the extra attitude they offer when you don't purchase an overpriced coffee beverage.

The portion sizes caught me by surprise, though. The "chips" were a full-sized can (Pringles, I think) and the "cookie" ... well, see for yourself:

big cookie

(As for the name: an extra laugh for anyone hip to modern French slang. -ed)

Yes. A quarter pound. Enough for the outbound flight, return, and the days in between. I dare say it weighed more than my sandwich.

No fear, I won't share the nutritional information. If you want a cookie, you already know what you're getting into ...

Sat, 2008/05/03 - 16:58 by aargh

The title is Russian for, "need a drink?"

In spite of airlines' cutbacks on luxury goods and creature comforts, it's nice that you can still get a complimentary beverage.

Sprite can

Upon closer inspection, I had to ask ... chto eto..?

Russian words on Sprite can

It would seem I passed through Moscow on my way to California..?

Fri, 2008/04/25 - 12:19 by aargh

Have you tried the new mobile edition of the website? It's not bad -- slim and trim access to reservations, flight status, and check-ins from your smartphone or other mobile web browser.

-but there's something missing. Under the "contact AA" link ... there's no way to reach customer relations. So if I've just had an experience worth sharing with AA's customer service department, I have to wait till I'm in front of a computer to send it.

So ...

Oversight on AA's part?

-or a way to stem the tide of angry mails from passengers stranded on the tarmac?

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