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No frills, no thrills

Rohan Anand | Thursday, April 5, 2007

Ever heard of the phrase “you get what you pay for?” It’s a statement applicable to anything and everything, especially nowadays in the context of air travel.

Recall the in-flight experience of yesteryear, when those who could afford flying received luxurious service in return. You’ve seen the well-groomed travelers spread out in reclining seats on TV Land, waited on by beautiful stewardesses. In those days of black-and-white television, flying was so classy that piano bars were on longer flights.

But here we are in the post 9/11 era, where you’re lucky enough to even receive a complimentary refreshment on board. With carriers burning through cash at a frightening rate, for them, the easiest way out of bankruptcy court is to slash ticket prices to get more people in the seats. Though appealing to the cost-conscious consumer, this means that quality service plunges with the airfares.

Remember the ghastly bistro bag? It’s history. Need a cocktail? Don’t expect free booze, even on international flights. Pillows? Sorry, cleaning costs got them scrapped from domestic flights.

And about those fares – you probably jumped at the offer of a $139 one way bid from L.A. to New York. Great, just get ready to be squeezed in a middle seat for a six-hour red-eye flight. Want the afternoon flight instead, or a window/aisle seat? That’s cool – just be prepared to cough up an additional $50 to $500.

The nightmare continues, even with your feet still on the ground. Companies like Spirit Airlines now charge passengers $10 for each checked bag (up to two bags) and $100 for a third. Tardiness is also a problem. A USA Today study concluded that the overall performance of U.S. airlines declined for the third consecutive year in 2006. One in every three flights was delayed.

In earnest, the airlines really can’t afford to be trucking your butt cross country for less than $200 a seat. It’s called “the stretching effect”: Low markups cause financial woes and wage reductions, which spill over to poison labor relations. Poor morale among employees causes luggage mishandling, cancelled flights and bumped passengers. Ultimately, the customers find themselves on the receiving end, wondering if paying discounted fares was worth the suffering.

But any savvy passenger can still work the system. You can arrive early at the airport to change your seat assignment at no extra cost. Travel light to spare your personal items – and your wallet – from check-in fees. If your bag is lost or damaged, demand compensation to buy new items or have the airline replace your bag.

Lastly, if your flight is overbooked and you can surrender your seat for a travel vouchers, do it! A standby passenger once coveted my seat so badly he proposed $1000 in cash if I relinquished it to him. Unfortunately, my mom declined the offer for me, convinced that it was drug money. Drug money or not, that’s ample cash to purchase an upgrade.

Another note to self: Want flagship service? Travel separately from Mom.