The great North Worst

I tend to think that markets are efficient and I’m also not much of a union supporter but if there’s anything that can get me off of these positions it is Northwest Airlines (NWA).

Having lived in the Twin Cities for nearly 26 years I’ve become all to familiar with the lies, the arrogance and the public relations tin ear of the company. Whether it’s wresting a financial bailout from the state in exchange for jobs, maintenance hangers and training centers promised for Duluth that never materialized, or just decades of lurching from one crisis to another it appears the only thing NWA is any good at is forcing upstart competitors out of the local market. Despite a succession of new owners it seems there’s something in the water that keeps them from running a good business, and I don’t think it’s solely their labor costs. In my gut I feel as if there ever was a company that deserved a good slapping around from its unions, NWA should be first in line (though they probably still wouldn’t be “on time”).

The NWA management and unions usually tear at each other in a way that would make any dysfunctional family proud, but that doesn’t mean they forget their customers who also come in for our own share of abuse (such as the time a loaded NWA jet was kept sitting on the tarmac in Detroit for more than 17 hours without being able to unload its passengers – and the airline didn’t send out extra food, drink or even a honey wagon). The latest brainstorm came today with the announcement that if you want to sit on an aisle or in an exit row your seat is going to cost $15 more.

Of course, this is being promoted as an improvement in “customer service” for people who book late, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the company just came out and said “We’re doing it to grub more money out of you and we’re doing it because we can, and what are you going to do about it, walk to Tulsa?”

Yes, yes, I know, markets are efficient and airline seats that offer a modicom more comfort or room are a commodity like anything else so, as a capitalist, I should applaud this effort to leverage more money for the share-holders — or at least for the bonuses to company executives. (In which case, though, let’s just put every seat up for bid and let the airline live with that). I’m sure there’ll be letters to the editor tomorrow from the same egalitarians who complain about the injustice of having the HOV lanes converted to toll lanes. I completely supported that initiative because I figured if enough people were willing to use the extra lane I would still benefit by seeing reduced traffic in the “free” lanes. There’s no similar trade-off or benefit for me in the NWA scenario, and, in fact, it increases the risk that I’ll end up in a middle seat.

Frankly, it’s not a direct impact for me. Almost all of the air travel I do is corporate and my company pays the bill. My travel profile with my company’s travel service already pretty much guarantees me an aisle seat, and I’ve learned how to use NWA’s on-line facility to change seat assignments and preprint my boarding pass to score exit row seats. That was my way of “sticking it to the man” to make up for the various and sundry other indignities endured for the sake of not having to hook up with a wagon train in order to get to Oregon. This new policy, however, may make this strategy more difficult for me.

Why doesn’t NWA just say, “Thank you for choosing us as your airline. Would you like the physical beating or non-beating seat today? Non-beating? Of course, there is an additional charge.”

So, yes, I’ll pay it (or my company will — and don’t blame me if your life insurance premiums go up). Sitting in a middle seat in the fetal position while hoping to avoid an embolism is already bad enough. The risk of ending up in a middle seat between Mitch Berg and King Banaian, however is too terrifying to contemplate.

2 thoughts on “The great North Worst

  1. NWA has always overcharges us compared with other markets.. why they’re having a hard time of keeping afloat is beyond me. They can jerk us around in this market because there’s no real competition.

  2. As you admit, a seat is a commodity. Why shouldn’t the more desirable seats be charged more? No, you’re probably not going to see a fare reduction as a result. But many times the economic benefits of a change are simply in price restraint, not deflation.

    The problem I see with the proposal is its execution. From what I have read, the premiums go into effect only 36 hours (for superflyers) or 24 hours (for the rest of us). If someone really wants to lock up a good seat, let them do it weeks, not hours, before the flight.

    Wags will complain by saying “What’s next? Extra fees for a plane that has two wings, not just one?” But we’re not talking about safety here, just comfort.

    Even a good idea can come from lousy management.

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