Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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My Business Travel Christmas Wish List
December 18, 2014 -North Pole-based frequent flier Kris Kringle may be coming to town, but there's probably nothing for business travelers among the toys and goodies he's loaded on his sleigh.
We'll have a blue Christmas because what we want from the airlines is a little dignity — and that's the business-travel version of a pony or an official Red Ryder air rifle. No kid ever gets a pony or a Red Ryder rifle for Christmas and we business travelers are not in line for a gift of dignity from the airlines.
Reveling in their Grinch-like moment of record profits and plunging oil prices, airline bosses have already revealed their New Year's Resolutions for 2015. They promise to install even narrower coach seats with less legroom, invent new ancillary fees for things that were once bundled in the basic fare and hold the line on prices, oil prices be damned.
But I live for miracles on a midnight clear when Santa is not delayed by a fog in San Francisco, a polar vortex in Chicago or an air-traffic control meltdown in London. Like a young Natalie Wood, I believe. I know it's silly, but I believe.
So while what appears below is even more outrageous than asking for a duplex and checks, it's my business-travel Christmas wish list. I'd say it does no harm to ask, but there's always a chance that we'll get run over by an airline executive dressed as a reindeer.
A seat you can sit in
St. Nick is one lucky round-the-world flier 'cause I've never seen a sleigh where Santa is squeezed into a chair so small that his little round belly runs up against the seat in front of him. There's no sleigh where Santa doesn't fit between the armrests — and, if we're being completely honest, Santa is a person of size.
And when his reindeer fly commercial, they are guaranteed humane space. IATA, the global airline trade group, mandates that "each animal ... must have enough space to turn about normally while standing, to stand and sit erect, and to lie in a natural position."
But airlines have been cutting our legroom and seat width for years. Some coach seats on major airlines now offer just 30 inches of legroom. Many are less than 18 inches wide between the armrests. And things are even worse at Spirit Airlines, where 28 inches of legroom is the standard.
So I wish for a federal regulation that requires all airlines to sell seats that you can actually sit in. Thirty-four inches of legroom is the minimum that should be allowed and the width of the chair between the armrests should be at least 19 inches. And we need federal regulations because even airlines making good money selling sanely sized seats are succumbing to the siren song of skimpy seats. I don't expect airlines to give us Santa-sized sleigh accommodations, but I do think we have a right to the same travel conditions as his reindeer.
Advertised fares in a bundle
After decades of selling "tickets" that included passage, an assigned seat, two checked bags and carry-on bags, airlines have unbundled everything. Now you pay separately for anything beyond your passage from Point A to Point B. Seat assignments, boarding positions, checked bags (and, in some cases, carry-on bags) are all optional purchases these days.
I'm an agnostic when it comes to how airlines price. Both the a la carte and price-fixed models are valid, so long as airlines don't mislead fliers, something the Department of Transportation tries to stop. But the DOT has also wrestled for years over the metaphysical definition of an airfare and what it should rationally include.
I wish the DOT would stop trying to play pricing god and focus instead on requiring the airlines advertise a rational price. In other words, let the airlines price as they wish, but insist they only advertise a logically inclusive price. The DOT should set an advertising baseline: Airlines can only advertise a "standard bundle" price that includes the passage, an advance seat assignment, one checked bag and the allowed carry-on limit of one bag and one personal item. If travelers want to buy less, fine. If airlines want to sell the items unbundled, fine. But to ensure a level and understandable playing field, the DOT should require airlines to advertise only the standard bundle of services that the plurality of fliers expect.
Eliminate fuel surcharges
We've already discussed why the airlines won't lower fares as they reap the benefit of lower oil prices. But airlines still retain the specious practice of "fuel surcharges," a phony charge that has virtually nothing to do with the actual price that airlines pay for energy.
Many travelers never interact with fuel surcharges because the DOT mandates the bogus fee be bundled into the total advertised price. But airlines continue to claim they impose a fuel surcharge atop a "base" fare for two reasons: corporately negotiated discounts generally don't apply to add-on fees and some airlines insist you must pay the fuel surcharge on your frequent-flier award ticket. This is no small fee, by the way. I've seen some transpacific $1,000 tickets that claim the actual fare is $200 and the fuel surcharge is $800.
I wish the DOT would ban this practice. Energy costs are logically a part of any fare for transit. Airlines should be barred from trying a "surcharge" dodge just to artificially inflate prices for corporate travelers and passengers who've earned a frequent flier award.
A regulatory stick
For better or worse, I'm known as the guy who branded frequent flier programs " unregulated lotteries." And I stand by the claim because airlines aren't ever required to pay off on the awards they say you've earned.
Still, I'm not sure what kind of regulation would come from Rep. Alan Grayson's (D-FL) demand that the DOT crack down on frequent flier programs.
I wish, however, that the DOT would at least would assert its right to regulatory oversight. Airlines now admit frequent-flier programs are part of their pricing strategies and Delta Air Lines often claims that its secrecy about SkyMiles is due to the program falling under the DOT's authority. So the DOT should at least affirmatively declare that it can regulate how airlines advertise and manage frequency plans. Just showing the big regulatory stick might be enough to chasten some carriers.
Finally, a personal note. I appreciate you sitting next to me in Seat 2A this year and I hope you've enjoyed the view. I wish you the very best of the holiday season. This was the carol that played most frequently in our house when I was a kid. And this is the one that gets me jazzed for the season these days.This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.