Saturday, August 17, 2013

Aerial Pandemonium Ballet

All I wanted to do was get from here to there. And so it would seem a relatively straightforward calculation: figure out that it takes this much fuel and that much labor to go from A to B, divide that by the number of people you can carry, factor in capital costs and overhead, tack on some profit, and before you can say Wilbur and Orville, you have a price for a plane ticket. But as anyone knows who has ever bought one, it's nowhere near that simple. From a simple one-price-includes- all model, the airline industry has evolved (or devolved depending on your point of view) to an a la carte approach that is as complex as it is unfriendly. 

Let's say you want to go from Philadelphia to the San Francisco area, a distance of 2500 miles and change. Even a cursory glance at the options available shows a dizzying array of possibilities. Peak costs more than off peak, direct more than indirect, last minute more than advance purchase, major airports more than minor. Sometimes, that is; other times not so much. If you look out a few weeks, there's a fare that gets you to San Jose, 30 minutes away from SFO, in a bit more than 7 hours including one stop. The price? Just $187, a seeming bargain to go coast to coast. However, later that day the same trip can cost you $667 and take more than 10 hours including two stops. Move it up a week, and the spread changes from $258 to nearly $1000. And let's be clear: all get you from the City of Brotherly Love to the City By The Bay. You would need a PhD in logic to understand the reasoning as why one costs more than another. 

And that's just the basic bill of passage. You have to figure out the seating, and not just window or aisle (has here ever been anyone who willing asked for a middle seat?). Because all sets of 17 inches of space at 30,000 feet are not created equal, you can select from the increasingly limited offerings toward the back, or opt for something more specific. Want something towards the front? That's an extra $19 in row 20, $25 if it's in row 12. Perhaps the bulkhead is more your style; $39 on the window, $59 if it's the aisle. And if you want the best seat in a bad neighborhood, the exit aisle? That's $79 for row 25 (limited recline: 1 inch) or $89 for row 26 (full recline: 1.7 inches). The only thing missing is a real estate agent telling you which schools your kids will go to if you sit there.  

It hardly ends there. Assuming you need a few personal items, you likely have a bag. You can try and bring it on, since that costs nothing. But you have to hope it fits overhead or under the seat in front of you AND you're in boarding group one, two or three AND the crew hasn't put their bags in your space. So maybe it's better to check it ahead of time. That will be $25, please. A second bag? Well, that's $35. Unless you're going to Mexico, then it's $40 Brazil? $70. Europe? That's $100. It's almost cheaper to just buy new stuff when you get there.  

Hungry? Because if you are, it'll cost you: $8.39 for a cheese platter, a dime or two more for a wrap or salad. That is assuming they still have something by the time they get to you in row 23. To play it safe, on some airlines, you can now pre-order your "fresh" premade sandwich or salad three days before you take off, to be delivered to you once you hit cruising altitude. No charge for stewardess service. Yet.  

So, if I'm doing the math correctly, depending on the flight you select, the seat you choose, the luggage you take and food you order, you can easily double the price of passage. Or looked at another way, the last three together can cost more than the trip itself. And none of that factors in the time you spend getting to the airport, going through security, waiting in line, and the same at the far end when you return.  

Maybe next time I'll just drive.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has frequent flyer accounts on too many airlines. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

No comments: