Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Paying for pillows and blankets - does it matter?

For years, JetBlue Airways has provided free pillows and blankets to its passengers. That era ended yesterday, and passengers who would like a pillow and blanket will be invited to purchase these items for $7.00.

JetBlue isn't breaking new ground here. American Airlines only offers pillows on international flights. Delta reserves them for First Class passengers. United typically has enough onboard for one out of every three seats.

Per usual, only Continental Airlines is actually holding the line in defense of what was once a standard service.

Now, before we all start talking about record fuel prices, which I concede are a problem for the airline industry, please remember that cuts in domestic airline service didn't start this year. We've been seeing reductions in service quality for decades--and most of it just went to pad bottom-line profits and fatten executive pay packages.

Consider this. In December, I took a flight from Stuttgart to Prague. It was about a 90-minute flight, which the attendant found to be barely enough time to provide beverage service, hand out sandwiches, collect trash, and get ready for landing. That's right: we got sandwiches. It's typical on foreign carriers to serve meals.

And you know what? It used to be typical in America. But as a culture, we don't really value service.

Americans are routinely baited into a line that goes something like this: "We'll eliminate XYZ, and in exchange, you'll pay less." We all go crazy for the idea, the service gets cut, the price gets cut. But next month, the price goes back up, we hear some line about cost and labor and taxes and oil and whatever else, and we're paying what we always paid but getting less.

That's how the airlines work. They use price as a justification to cut service, use cost as a justification to raise price, and when costs fall, add the extra profit to executive pay. And we just explain it away, throw up our hands and say, what can we do?

JetBlue is a good airline. Its people are friendly, its planes are comfy and usually clean, and the new pillows and blankets it's selling are a lot nicer than the free ones it used to hand out. So, no insult to JetBlue; I don't fly with them often simply because their frequent flyer program doesn't do me as much good as some others, but I like JetBlue. I can understand why someone would choose to fly with JetBlue despite this latest fee.

Just be careful. Every cost-slashing, service-slashing, disgruntled legacy carrier around today was a premium-quality, top-notch airline twenty years ago. The problem with fees and cost cutting measures is that they take on a life of their own.

Let's hope that JetBlue really is adding a service with these new blankets and pillows.

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