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From the bedroom to the bathroom, it’s clear carriers still don’t get it

Written by editor

By this point, neither you nor I are living under the misconception that corporate America cares what we think of them — but even so, the airline industry presents a special case.

By this point, neither you nor I are living under the misconception that corporate America cares what we think of them — but even so, the airline industry presents a special case. America is currently up in arms over $165 million in AIG bonuses, but that’s small beans for airline execs, and for travelers this sort of outrage is nothing new.

The airline industry has been flying and profiting from the airways (which are owned by the American people, after all) while gouging and feeing and baiting and switching and offending and ignoring and fleecing and blaming us for years. AIG may be the latest and biggest fish to play this game, but I think they could still learn some tricks from the airlines.

I won’t go into the obscene executive compensation going to folks who all but destroyed their companies (the airlines perfected this one years ago), or taxpayer bailouts (some airlines are repeat offenders here). Hitting much closer to home, here are four recent signs that the airlines still don’t get it, and probably never will. Counting down, let’s start with …

4. Spirit Airlines’ boorish and tone-deaf ad campaigns

Speaking of obscene, Spirit Airlines is notorious for its suggestive and demeaning ad campaigns — to the point where even its own employees finally had to speak out. (The last straw was Spirit’s recent move to slap Bud Light advertisements on flight attendant aprons.)

It’s not the first time Spirit has had to back off an ad campaign — the company had to pull its “Hunt for Hoffa” ads in response to public backlash a few years ago. And in 2007, the airline initiated its now-infamous MILF ads (which putatively stood for “More Islands, Lower Fares”). At the time, an airline spokesperson claimed ignorance of the more suggestive significance of the acronym (which I will not reproduce here for obvious reasons). Honest mistake? Maybe, but that’s hard to believe given the tenor of other, equally provocative campaigns.

At the time of writing, it appeared that Spirit had dropped these sophomoric campaigns, but I spoke too soon: Within an hour after filing the story, I received a promotional e-mail from Spirit touting its “We’re Having a Threesome Sale — Fares From $3 Each Way.” Which turns out to offer a perfect segue to …

3. The most recent deep discounts on the major U.S. airlines

The most recent fare war, in which all the major airlines participated, included advertised sale fares as low as $27. If you got one of those fares, more power to you, but the fact is that in the end the airlines must rob Peter to pay Paul. That is, they entice us with $27 fares, get the press to go gaga over it (and I don’t except myself from this group; just writing about it here will likely encourage them, no matter the context), and enjoy the subsequent rush to the Web to research and purchase fares.

But the number of seats available at the lowest fares tends to be extremely limited, and eventually someone has to pay for these loss leader prices. It’s an easy guess who that is: us again! It all comes back around in higher fares on monopoly routes, on full planes, during peak travel times, in fees and more. Airlines, please listen to your customers and give us consistent, transparent, sensible pricing already. Purchasing air travel in the public skies should not be like playing the lottery.

2. The hidden fees gambit continues

While some industry experts believe that the airlines have finally exhausted all potential new fees, Spirit Airlines (again, oof) found a few that no one else had thought of — mainly because, well, they’re illegal.

Last summer, Spirit instituted three very sly fees:

A $4.90 “passenger usage fee,” which was essentially a charge to, well, fly

A $2.50 “natural occurrence fee” to offset the cost to the airline of natural occurrences, including rain; this would be more accurately named the “weather fee”

An $8.50 “international service recovery fee,” which was to pay the certain expenses associated with flying internationally

The Department of Transportation quickly shot the fees down, as they did not meet the requirement that any fees applying to all passengers must be included as part of advertised fares (such as fuel surcharges, for example). Spirit relented briefly, and has dropped the weather and international service fees.

This month, however, the company reinstated the Passenger Usage Fee after making a small, savagely clever change to its policy — the fee is waived if you purchase your ticket at the airport ticket counter. Do you know anyone who has purchased a ticket at the airport ticket counter in the past 5 to 10 years? I don’t think I do.

1. An airline actually considered charging for toilet access

I’m almost speechless on this one (although the chattering class has been anything but); European discount airline Ryanair held serious, high-level talks to consider charging passengers to use the toilets.

It turns out that there is no legal requirement for airlines to provide a loo onboard — so of course some greedy numskull figured this out and came up with the idea to charge for it. With all the handwringing the airlines engaged in over the weight of DVD players on airlines, you would think just the weight and hassle of having heaps of coins onboard to make change for passengers would nix this one.

With offenses from the bedroom to the bathroom, the airlines just don’t get it, and there is little evidence they ever will.