(Bloomberg Opinion) — A refrain I’ve heard a lot these past six months is how great it’s been not to have to travel. People who were frequent fliers before the pandemic usually add that they now realize that, thanks to Zoom and its rivals, a lot of travel isn’t truly necessary anymore. Maybe some of it never was.
Yes, lawyers need to conduct trials in person — but it’s a waste of time and money to fly across the country for, say, a one-hour scheduling conference. Sales representatives might need to fly to a client’s location to close a deal, but simply checking in on existing ones can be done remotely. A company off-site meeting? Sure, gather the troops in one place. But a staff meeting? It is easier — and often more productive — to hold a video conference. Most consequences of the pandemic have been awful, but the drastic reduction in business travel especially has been a revelation.
Which is why I had to laugh when I read earlier this week that United Airlines Holdings Inc. was eliminating the much-hated “change fee” — the $200 it charges customers who book flights and then need to change them. A number of other airlines, including Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc. quickly followed suit. United vowed that it would not reinstate the fee once the virus has been conquered. Delta’s Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian said in a statement, “We want our customers to book and travel with peace of mind, knowing that we’ll continue evaluating our policies to maintain the high standard of flexibility they expect.”
And to think, it only took a 70% drop in business for the airline industry to get rid of a fee that customers absolutely loathed. The domestic industry generated $2.8 billion in fee revenue last year, according to Bloomberg News, a big chunk of which were change fees. That sounds like a lot until you realize that it amounts to 1.5% of the industry’s $190 billion in annual revenue.
In truth, change fees aren’t going to make much difference to the business traveler, nor is their elimination going to make air travel less painful for the rest of us. So let me suggest a few other customer-friendly moves airlines might make to revive the business:
More legroom. You want to know what really infuriates passengers? Spending an entire flight with one’s knees pushed up against the seat in front of them. The distance between seats is called “pitch,” and it has been shrinking since the early 1980s. The standard pitch was once a luxurious 36 inches; now on most of the legacy carriers it is 29 or 30 inches unless you pay extra for more comfortable seats. Creating more legroom (which also means passengers can lean back without breaking someone’s knees) would make customers quite happy, even if it did mean fewer seats on each plane.
More comfortable seats. You’ve no doubt noticed how thin the padding is on your seat — and how uncomfortable. That’s another one of those things airlines have gradually done to maximize profits at the expense of their customers — they have installed seats that are both narrower and thinner than they used to be. Your elbow is always bumping into the person next to you, and if you’re in a middle seat, the flight is a minor form of torture.
Enough with the cheese platters. Can we please have real food again?
Bigger bathrooms. When you get to the point that you can’t turn around in an aircraft bathroom without touching the walls, things have gone too far. Aircraft bathrooms aren’t the biggest of deals, but when you need to use one, they are just another small reminder that the airline industry simply hasn’t cared about customer comfort in a very long time.
No more 50-pound weight limit. I mean, c’mon. You’re at the gate, you put your suitcase on the scale, and it weighs 56 pounds. To avoid having to pay an additional $100, you put your suitcase on the floor and start pulling out items so that your luggage will be under the weight limit. Of course, those items will still be on the plane, but they will be carried on instead of checked. It’s nuts. (While I’m on the subject, how about making checked luggage free, and charging for carry-on? Among other things, that would make boarding an airplane much faster and easier.)
Everything I’ve just suggested would deprive the airlines of some recurring revenue. It would probably cause their stock prices to sink (or, rather, sink further). But so what? The airline industry has been consolidating for decades to the point where only four major U.S. carriers are left. As they have made flying an increasingly miserable experience, and as they’ve nickel-and-dimed customers every step of the way, they’ve done so in concert. They’ve focused far more on profits than on passengers. Now that has to change.
I seriously doubt the business traveler will ever come back in the numbers that flew before the pandemic. Why would they, now that they’ve seen the light? And the industry is not likely to make the kind of money it has made the past half-dozen years.
The rest of us will start flying again eventually. But it’s not going to happen until the airlines prove they truly care about their customers. Eliminating change fees is just the start.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast “The Shrink Next Door.”
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