Today’s Chicago Tribune gave front page coverage to a US Department of Transportation consumer forum on air travel. The story’s title, You Are Now Free To Take A Flying Leap, says it all. The reporter’s conclusion is disheartening realistic — “airline passengers received an unapologetic warning at the forum that customer service will continue to diminish and consumers more than ever need to fend for themselves at the airport”. The airlines’ ever expanding set of nickel-and-diming fees are less about generating additional revenue and more about cost reduction — reducing the demand for services that aren’t directly associated with keeping a jet in the air. American Airlines’ $15 charge for the first checked bag is really all about reducing fuel costs — incenting passengers to bring less luggage, reducing fuel consumption through reduced load weight.
Comparing passenger jets to “flying buses” is not an exaggeration. The airlines are redefining themselves, shrinking the boundaries of their responsibilities. They no longer sell a travel experience; they sell transport. And they’re walking running away from any service that doesn’t directly involve transporting passengers through the air. Is this a business opportunity for another company — say, for one of the private airport operating companies? Hmmm, not sure the result will be any better if BAA’s stewardship of London Heathrow is any guide. The real question, though — are regular coach passengers willing to pay for anything more than being hauled from one city to another?