A communication consultant I've known for years, a good guy and a moderate liberal, grouses that despite his status as a million-mile flyer with United Airlines, he gets stuck in the middle seat on the back of the plane.
Well, United sucks like a bucket of ticks, so argument there.
But I've always been troubled by the sense of entitlement that people who fly a lot feel, just for flying a lot. Granted, the airlines encouraged this sense, by inventing the term "Frequent Flier" and flogging it as if it implies some social virtue, like "Hard Worker," or "Straight Shooter."
But really, all "Frequent Flier" means is either that you are rich and able to fly around a lot, or that you have to travel a lot for your work.
But here's what it also means (everywhere but United, apparently): You get priority over "infrequent fliers." (They ought to have a catchy name too. Let's call them, "Rare Birds.")
You get to zip past them at the check-in counter and you get the best seats on the plane.
And who are the Rare Birds? By and large, they are people who live a more modest existence than the Frequent Flier—they don't have money for lots of vacations, and they hold local jobs in a global economy.
I'm not asking Frequent Fliers to feel sorry for the Rare Birds. I'm not even asking them to stop feeling sorry for themselves. (I hate business travel and am grateful I don't have to do it often.)
I'm just asking why they think the Chicago shlub who saved a few hundred bucks to go visit his cousin in Pittsburgh should be stuck in the middle seat instead of them?
Seth Godin says
That’s an easy one, David (assuming you’re not just trolling here).
Treat different customers differently. Always.
One happy frequent flier is worth 50 happy rare birds. In any industry.
It might not be fair, but it’s true.
Corollary: you can’t treat every customer the same, but you should still treat every customer well.
David Murray says
I’m not saying airlines shouldn’t have frequent-flier programs, Seth.
(Although to a great extent, Southwest Airlines HAS treated all customers the same, and built goodwill in that way, so your theory is only a theory, widely but not universally applied.)
But we don’t turn to companies to create our morality or to set the rules for social fairness.
Say, for instance I go to a coffee shop every day. The staff treats me really well, often going out of their way to ask if I need a refill, to remind me they’ve got my favorite kind of muffins, etc.
In fact, they treat me better than they treat their other customers.
Excellent! I’ll take it!
But if I walk in one day and there’s a long line and the proprietor sees me and waves me ahead of all the other customers, of course I demur, because I decide what’s fair–not the proprietor of the coffee shop, no matter her theories about my short- or long-term “worth” to her business.
I’m not asking the airlines to change. I’m asking frequent fliers why they think someone else should be in the middle seat, and someone else should wait in line while they breeze through.
Star-bellied sneeches. Dr. Suess.
It explains a lot.
Bill Sledzik says
I once did business with a bank that had a special line for its “President’s Club” depositors. It happens that we had the requisite deposits at the time, thanks to really high CD rates (remember those?). So we became the privileged.
But like your coffee shop example, I just couldn’t bring myself to move ahead of the little people and the elderly and use that President’s Club tellers. It felt so elitist, and I’m just a humble guy, after all.
Seth makes a great point that goes to the 80-20 rule. You gotta keep the regulars happy. From a bottom line perspective, I get that.
But ask me which airline this rare bird likes, and I’ll tell you Southwest. There are a few of us our here who think fairness is a great business practice — even if we do occasionally get the middle seat.
Judy Gombita says
I ran into this problem when booking flights (online) within Australia: frequent fliers were given first choice at seats. In fact, in most cases I couldn’t indicate a seat option.
“How can a tourist from the other side of the world be a frequent flier with your airline?,” I inquired when checking-in at various airports.
I usually got a shrug, rueful look and the response, “This was a decision made by the airline’s management.”
BTW, I recollect all (or nearly all) of the airline reps managed to “find” me my preferred choice of seat, changing the middle seat automatically assigned by online booking. And I always rewarded those goodwill efforts with a Canadian pin–my Member of Parliament’s office had given me a huge supply. Which was great, because the Aussies certainly loved receiving one. Both of us would end the “transaction” with smiles on our faces.
David Murray says
Oh, Gombita, no fair citing the politeness and goodwill of Canadians and Aussies. In fact, if aircraft manufacturers were Canadian, there would be no middle seats–or if there were, they’d be wider than the surrounding seats to make up for the unfairness.
Judy Gombita says
It sounds like you’ve never flown Scare Canada….
As we bitched about various airline screw-ups (recent and past), someone at the Halifax CPRS conference informed our group that the airline’s motto is: “We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”
David Murray says
No, I haven’t flown Air Canada, but I’ve heard the bitching all the way down here. Love that slogan.
Rodney Gray says
Here in Australia Virgin started charging an extra 30 bucks if you wanted extra leg room on the bulkhead or exit rows. Great idea, especially if you were flying right across Australia (which is much the same as flying across the US).
Following this logic I can’t understand why airlines don’t have variable pricing. Charge more for aisle and window seats, and even more for exit rows on long haul flights.
At least before electonic checkin, Virgin also seemed to allocate seats based on appearance (e.g. if you were wearing a business suit you sat up the front, if you were in a large group of footballers who had been drinking you sat down the back of the bus).
I once penalised my favourite coffee shop to the tune of $900 when they failed to get me a second cup of coffee in a reasonable time. I was so angry I promised myself that I’d deny them $1000 worth of business (after all, there were 15 coffee shops below my skyscraper). But I gave in early.
Nearby is a coffee shop that gets everyone’s name of a morning. After a day or two they greet you in the queue by name. Very personal. With the personal greetings and chatting very few mind the long line.
Steven Green says
If I fly a lot or bank a lot or frequent a coffee shop a lot I do expect to have a different relationship than the non-requlars.
Not saying they should get bad service, lumpy seats or busted seatbelts but I for one do expect to have my loyalty and partonage to translate into faster, more comfortable (when it’s not ‘unfair’ to others – non-lumpy seats as an example) and personal experience than the occassionals.
If you post a mailing address David, I’ll send you my old Che Guevara T-Shirt. Apparently my views have changed since university…