Please stop giving me things for free

Dear Spirit Airlines,

Boeing_727-2S7_Advanced_Champion_LAX
Boeing 727. Source: Champion_Air_727-2S7_LAX_N686CA.jpg: Aero Icarus derivative work: Altair78

I recently booked my first flight with you Spirit and was pleasantly surprised. You are the first airline I have seen to charge separately for carrying on a small sized suitcase. As a passenger who wears only shorts, a light white vest and sandals – even to the winter olympics – I greatly appreciated the gesture. Gone are the days of me having to subsidise my lavish heavy-packing brethren. As a European familiar with Ryanair I appreciate your efforts to become a “no frills” airline but I must be frugal in my praise. I know your innovations in breaking out prices go beyond carry-on luggage but I would argue that you really are not going far enough with this strategy. The freebies you have eliminated are only the tip of the ice-berg in terms of what is ultimately possible. Please stop giving me things for free.

The opportunities I see for cutting down on freebies are endless. Take, for example, those passengers who prefer to travel wearing shorts – like myself. Surely the 200 grams of material weight saved – compared with trousers – are deserving of a specific discount on my fare. With global warming in the public eye there surely are benefits for the consequent carbon dioxide savings too. Imagine a full flight of people wearing shorts… that could be up to two hundred times 200 grams of weight saved. PLUS, every flight would look like a trip to the Canaries – surely that ambiance alone would be worth charging for too. I don’t want to elaborate too much on the knock-on benefits of this policy but let me not finish without noting that, with a plane full of shorted passengers, the requirements for air conditioning would fall down too.

The second topic I’d like to explore is the in-flight experience. You may feel that, given existing sales of sodas, snack-packs and multi-combined-special-offer-combo-deals, this is an area in which further breaking down prices will generate diminishing returns. I beg to differ and believe that a wealth of unexplored avenues are right outside the window. Literally, I think there are opportunities right outside the window. Personally, I rarely look out the window and I firmly believe that such frugal behaviour is deserving of a lavish discount. You may think that sitting in a window-seat and looking out the window should come together but I would disagree. It is perfectly possible to sit by the window and not look out, or to sit in the aisle and look out of the window almost all of the time. Without breaking pricing down further, such a system really cannot be economically just or fair. Where you sit and where you look can, and should, be priced separately. To go even further – and I see absolutely no reason not to – I feel the window looking experience can easily be split up. A two times premium for good weather, a three times premium for good scenery and a five-times premium for take-off and landing seem to me an excellent path to go. Moreover, with so many options, you could create some combo deals that mirror or even comingle with combos on snacks. A ginger beer, three peanuts and a look out the window for landing – who wouldn’t part with $10 for a combo like that?

My final point of note relates to billing. Clearly, if you haven’t already, it would be beneficial to create your own specific credit card, directly or via a deal with a third party, and then charge customers a bonus fee for the pleasure of using any card other than that. This is a bit obvious so I won’t make this my main point. I will note, however, the added benefit of passengers carrying one more credit card in their wallet and the consequent opportunity to charge for carrying their additional credit card weight. This credit card strategy is really only the first step on the way to being a price-separating black belt. To reach those heights, if you do so aspire, I would suggest continuous billing. At each moment in time, passengers can control; the moments at which they would like to yawn, the amount of air they instantaneously wish to breathe, and, whether they would prefer to maintain a happy, sad or neutral face. The instantaneous price of altering each of these three control settings – along with 747 other settings that I haven’t the time to describe – would all appear on an interactive screen that looks all but a Bloomberg terminal, complete with historical price tracking as well as options, forwards and futures. Decades ago buying a flight involved only one decision – either you bought the flight or you didn’t. We’re now so far beyond that; customers are constantly considering whether to shell out on luggage, insurance or snacks, and continuous billing is obvious next step.

All in all, I wrote this article to ask, in an absurd way, whether this is a trend that has gone too far. Being charged for services that were traditionally free is a painful experience (take a listen to this NPR episode about free) because, as Daniel Kahnemann’s book – Thinking Fast and Slow – points out, giving something up feels about twice as bad as gaining that same thing feels good. Constant decision making about buying things is also stressful for passengers (and more generally, consumers) because people really hate being peppered with decisions where they have to considering giving things up. It seems to me we should ask whether businesses are taking into account the drawbacks of taking away what was free, and the drawbacks of forcing consumers to constantly take decisions. Perhaps these drawbacks are hurting businesses in the short term and hurting their brands in the long term. Not everyone wants an all-inclusive package holiday – but perhaps it isn’t random that straightforward all-inclusive (or partially inclusive) deals exist or came about.

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