Wednesday, August 18, 2010

American Airlines Adds Fees for the Slightly Less-Crummy Seats in Coach: The Annotated Version

[Meanwhile, Pentagon announces that any soldier who re-ups for another combat tour gets priority access to bulkhead seating on transport aircraft]

American Airlines said today it would begin charging extra to reserve "choice" coach seats, which I define as the somewhat-less-horrible seats, including those on the aisle toward the front of the plane and the bulkhead seats.

You can read that move several ways. If you're an American Airlines elite status flier, meaning you already supposedly have free dibs on those seats, you can read it that your "status," such as it was, is worth less now. [Ha-ha. Thank you for your loyalty, please understand we need that seat for someone willing to pay extra for it.]

American says that its elite fliers still have dibs on the less-horrible seats. [Especially if they fly full fare coach!] But at the same time, American is selling those seats to anyone who wishes to pay for them. [Guess who's going to really get priority where the rubber meets the road, or the leading-edge meets the wind?].

Still, we are now entering a new era in air travel. And I have news for some who write about travel but seldom actually get on a plane: I will, in fact, pay a reasonable amount for a choice seat, and my definition of "choice" is pretty lax.

The idea that a coach seat on the aisle at the front of the plane isn't worth much to a frequent traveler is silly. My current lowest-level elite status with Continental gives me two dependable, if small, perks: One, I get priority boarding, along with the dozens and dozens of other elite-status passengers lined up at the gate. That means, mostly, I am assured that I can stash my regulation-sized carry-on in a bin that has room for it, a bin roughly in the vicinity of my seat. And two, I usually get to select the seat I want, if not an exit row seat any more (they're selling those).

It means I get to sit where I choose, in the front of coach, on the aisle. In a regional jet, it means I usually get to select a single row seat up front, and not worry about being wedged into a torture device in the back. When my plane lands, I get off quickly. Those in the back do not get off quickly. They stand and stand, shifting against the turgid current flowing toward the unseen exit door up front.

Now, this perk is no longer worth the effort to maintain elite status on Continental and besides, now that I no longer live in New Jersey, where Continental has a major hub at Newark, I tend to fly other airlines more often, especially Southwest (no hassles, no asinine fees, no jive) and US Airways.

I have no status on US Air. Instead, I willingly pay the $15 US Air charges for priority seating. That's the deal I buy into. You pays your money and takes your seat. Fine. Screw elite status. Who needs it?

However, unlike US Air and some others, which have a set price for choice seats, American -- which incidentally was the only domestic airline that did not make a profit in the 2nd quarter of this year -- is selling its "choice" seats in the style of a Final Four scapler. Yet it is announcing this scheme as if it were a major customer service improvement. Airlines, as I have said here repeatedly, are evidently constitutionally unable to simply state facts in a forthright manner.

Here's the American press release today -- as annotated by me in italics:

"FORT WORTH, Texas – American Airlines is introducing Express Seats SM, the newest product offering under its Your ChoiceSM line of products and services that provide customers a way to purchase special services they value. [MY NOTE: What the hell does 'SM' mean? Just a guess: sadomasochist?]

With Express Seats [that is, seats you pay extra for] travelers can purchase seats in the first few rows of Coach, including bulkhead seats in that cabin. Additionally, customers who purchase an Express Seat are able to board with Group 1 of General Boarding for their flight, providing them the convenience of being among the first Coach customers on and off the plane. [And making it even more crowded for elite-status passengers boarding at the same time]

Express Seats are available to all American Airlines customers and can be purchased exclusively via airport Self-Service Check-In machines [did any of these people pay attention to the capitalization part of elementary school grammar?] anytime from 24 hours to 50 minutes prior to scheduled flight departure for travel wholly within the United States, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Introductory pricing [oh God, they're hoping to jack it up even higher if they get away with this] for Express Seats begins at $19 per flight, with pricing based on distance. [The more you pay, the less you get tortured. However, we are not yet charging based on altitude.] Here are some examples of introductory prices for Express Seats on popular American Airlines routes:

--$19 for St. Louis to Chicago O’Hare

--$29 for San Francisco to Dallas/Fort Worth

--$29 for Boston to Chicago O’Hare

--$39 for New York JFK to Los Angeles [that means, add about $80 to the RT coast-to-coast fare]

--$39 for Chicago O’Hare to Honolulu [we're really trying to gin up demand on that sorry route]

"Express Seats highlights American’s focus on offering customers what they value most," said Virasb Vahidi, Chief Commercial Officer for American Airlines. [Wait: Customers "value" paying to avoid crummy seats, is that what you're saying?] "This is another great product under the Your Choice program that puts more travel choices in the customer’s hands." [And more ancillary fee revenue into the airline's mitts]

American still provides travelers with the option to pre-reserve other seats ["pre-reserve" is evidently the new-hype way of saying "reserve," and the reference seems to include the dreaded seats back by the toilets] in the Coach Cabin [that capitalization problem again!] at no charge. [yet] In addition, AAdvantage® elite status members, oneworld® elite status members and customers purchasing full-fare tickets will continue to have exclusive access to preferred seating, separate from Express Seats, on a complimentary basis."




the said...

Having not seen the original press release, I'll hazard a guess that "SM" in that context is supposed to represent the "service mark" character, which is a trademark representing a service rather than a product.

Anonymous said...

SM means "Service Mark," basically, they have trademarked that phrase.

John said...

Hi Joe - My guess is that they have filed a Service Mark on the word Choice. It's like a trademark, but applies to services rather than products.

Thanks for the fun and thought provoking article!


Steve Kalman said...

Quick FYI.

As CO Gold, I am able to reserve exit row seats at no charge, however, they don't become available until a few days before flight.

I check the seat map starting 8 days out and switch seats when they open up.

Been in one every flight, except for the few times I've been upgraded to F.