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No Free Lunch

Small airlines need to realize low fares aren’t an excuse for customer neglect

By Matthew H. Ghazarian, None

The smell of baked ham and soggy lettuce on a dry nine-grain bun doesn’t typically make my mouth water, but shortly into my 2 hour, 21 minute flight home for Christmas, it sounded utterly delicious. “Excuse me, sir,” said the flight attendant. “Would you like some lunch today?” For a moment, I was disoriented—there was no five dollar price tag attached to the offer, only an enticing lunch box on her outstretched arm. And I had been addressed politely, an antiquated notion of civility other airlines had led me to give up on. Further surprising me, the attendant returned after lunch for a second time with a beverage cart. “We’re offering a complimentary second beverage to wash down lunch. Would you like something else to drink?” Had I fallen asleep and woken up in the ’90s? No—I had merely booked my flight with Continental Airlines.

I was still baffled, though. I had picked Continental for its direct flight and surprisingly low fare (roughly $220, including taxes, from Cleveland to Ft. Meyers), not expecting frills and stellar service. For me, these experiences dispelled the myth that most low-fare airlines want their thirsty, hungry, and frustrated customers to believe: that cheap prices and quality service are mutually exclusive. Low-fare airlines need to realize that offering competitive prices is only half the battle in being competitive, and that offering these fares is no license to actively destroy customer satisfaction.

Take luggage fees, for instance. With so many stresses already involved with air travel, the last thing one wants is to be slapped with extra costs. That’s exactly what almost happened to me at Logan’s AirTran counter when I flew with another small airline. Taking one glance at my bag, the woman in charge pulled out a tape measure. She proceeded to explain that its combined dimensions exceeded limits by less than one inch, and that I had no option but to pay an additional $40. The embarrassment and frustration of my fellow travelers notwithstanding, I held up the line and argued with the woman. Finally, I wrested the bag from her, tightened the luggage strap, and said curtly, “There is your three-quarters of an inch.” She shut up and took the bag.

My experience with Continental was just the opposite. As I approached the check-in counter, laden with two large suitcases to study abroad, the Continental counter person noted that one of my bags was one pound over the limit. But she followed up by saying my other bag was ten pounds below the limit. It was illogical, she explained, to reduce me to the humiliation of opening my bags right there and transferring one extra pound of items to the other bag. I was saved. I was loved. And for the cheap fare I had paid, I was shocked.

Once you’re on the plane, the humiliation doesn’t stop. On that same AirTran flight out of Logan, I ran to the gate, fearing I had made myself late with the luggage argument. I arrived sweating and parched. Just after the woman scanned my ticket, I noticed a water fountain no more than ten feet away. I asked the gate person if she would watch my bags while I stopped for a drink. Her dry response: “Sir, we are trying to board the plane on time. I can’t allow you to leave once your ticket has been scanned. I’m sure they can give you water on board.” They didn’t. Even after resorting to lying about a pill I had to take, the flight attendants did not give me a glass of water—perhaps they were too busy mixing cocktails for the tiny first class cabin’s one passenger.

I understand completely that the airline industry is competitive and that profit margins are thin. The whole point of low-fare carriers, the argument goes, is that one suffers some inconveniences and a lack of frills for a better deal. And some say that more expensive airlines merely use the extra money on fares to pay for the supposedly “free” complimentary meals and beverages. But as my experience with Continental made clear, much of the inordinate hassle from flying with small airlines is completely unnecessary. Next time you are looking for flights, consider shelling out the extra few bucks for a more expensive airline—avoiding unexpected extra fees, escaping unforeseen hassles, and experiencing the deceptive joy of a “free” lunch will be well worth it.

Matthew H. Ghazarian ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.

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