A few weeks ago, Southwest Airlines dominated the headlines after a debacle in which it canceled more than 16,000 flights smack in the middle of the holiday season. According to CNN, the episode was caused by a combination of a severe winter storm and an outdated crew scheduling system, and cost the airline more than $800 million.
To save face, Southwest reportedly refunded fares for canceled flights, reimbursed passengers who purchased tickets on other carriers (which is unheard of), gave thousands of bonus points to frequent fliers, and offered travel vouchers—though the reality is that travel vouchers can be fairly useless due to the restrictions that are typically attached.
The fallout produced a flurry of controversy, including the promise of a government probe, as well as outrage from public officials demanding a traveler’s “bill of rights.” Good luck with that. The airline industry will take this slap on the wrist—and the associated fine—as it has done in the past. They’ll pay it and continue to do business in manners that boggle the mind.
Touring as I have for years with Blue Öyster Cult, I’ve had many a discussion with the band’s travel agent regarding airfares. Sometimes the price structure makes sense, like the way taking a 7:00 a.m. flight is less expensive than taking a 10:00 a.m. flight—after all, who the heck wants to be at the airport at 5:15 for a 7:00 a.m. flight? We’ve also experienced the price-gouging that happens this time of year, when flights can be priced double what they’d be if it weren’t Spring Break.
There are a few gouges that still have me baffled, like the way a direct flight is usually more expensive than one with a connection. A trip with a connection requires more resources to get you to the same place, but then it also practically guarantees a full plane on each segment of the trip—and airlines love full flights. Still, they can charge more for the direct flight because people are willing to pay to avoid connections.
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Another mystery is the “Saturday night stay” stipulation, whereby booking a round-trip flight is always cheaper when you “stay over” for a Saturday night. Book a trip that starts on Wednesday and returns on Saturday afternoon, and it’s inevitably more expensive than if you departed Thursday and returned home on Sunday.
That riddle was recently hammered home with a new level of ugliness: While the travel agent and I were researching fares from the U.S. to Eastern Europe, we found that the price of a flight without the Saturday night stay is $1,500 per person higher than if we were to stay an extra night. Multiply that number by eight to accommodate the entire band and crew. What is that all about?
It’s a gouge, and a good indication of what’s wrong with the airline industry. Compare buying a quart of milk to buying a plane ticket. You can pay for that quart of milk, but you can’t necessarily have it (aka, overbooking)—or you might be forced to wait to receive it (if you get bumped). You could pay more for that same quart of milk than I do, especially if you purchase it at the last minute. You may not be able to open that quart of milk if the weather is bad, in which case the grocery store is not at fault because it’s an Act of God. As Spock said, “That, is illogical.”
So, when I hear a politician pontificate that the Feds are going to step in and create an airline traveler’s bill of rights, I laugh. It won’t happen. As long as the airline lobby has Congress in its back pocket, they’ll continue to do business in whatever manner they please.