'Tank top, flip flop' again

Posted: Nov 23, 2004 12:00 AM

I rarely return to the exact topic of a previously written column, but the reaction on both sides of the issue to my "tank top, flip flop" airline piece last week is just too fun not to revisit.

 First, to the half of those readers who commented or e-mailed suggesting the luggage that hit me on the head during a recent flight had obviously caused serious brain damage, let me be the first to say: "Probably so!" And to the one reader who suggested my unusually cranky comments indicated I obviously needed a vacation -- in a tank top and flip flops -- my answer is: "You're dead right!"

 As for the other side, including some in the industry, their comments were equally noted. Several said that, since deregulation, their profession had been reduced to a shadow of what it had once been. And business travelers, big surprise, commented on their frustration with a system that seemed to make doing business increasingly difficult and which forced them to purchase last-minute tickets at jacked-up prices.

 So my thanks to both those who deemed my comments "snotty" (probably so, given the head injury) and those who wanted to put a armed guard at the first-class threshold to protect the restroom in the front of the plane (a little extreme). When you talk about flying, you get lots of responses.

 But I do want to return to last week's column not only because as it runs this week millions of people will be, for better or worse, in happiness or misery, taking to the skies, but also because of one particular comment that I found more instructive, not only when it comes to flying, but with regard to public opinion on many issues.

 On Monday, a reader took me to task and made some good points while she did so. She is a student and felt offended by my comments. Understand that, in the opinion business we are always told never to apologize for a strong stand or for being colorful. We have a list of "no-no" words, but tank tops and flip flops aren't on it. That being said, I don't want to offend anyone who will take the time to read anything I have to say -- so to her I offer a sincere, "Sorry." Wear what you want; fly where you wish. And keep reading and writing to your local paper. It restores my faith in youth and the future.

 Now let me take the time to examine one portion of this letter, not to pick on an obviously bright college student, but to illustrate the very essence of the problem facing airlines, and everything from health care to Social Security. In response to my suggestion that the airlines should price seats based on the cost per passenger and a standard mark up, what used to be Business 101, she wrote: "If the airlines raised their fares to compensate for the costs of operations and the fares were marked up for a profit, those airlines would lose the business of the less-frequent traveler and those unwilling to pay outrageous prices."

 So let me get this straight: Airlines can't price in order to make a profit because those who don't travel much or who don't want to pay their fair share wouldn't be able to fly? Wow. Well, let's just redistribute the wealth and completely capture the "people who want other people to pay for them" demographic.

 To be fair, the comment doesn't shock me. It is reflective of the opinion among many in America who really do believe that, when it comes to air travel, health care or a multitude of other services, they should pay only what they want to pay, and others should shoulder the burden of the difference between what they want to pay and what the particular good or service being provided actually costs.

 It's this concept that is not only killing airlines, but ultimately will place an impossible burden on the same person who is now, say, a college student. The same young person who currently enjoys the cheap fare underwritten by some other passenger will someday have to pay more and more toward a Social Security system from which he or she might never have the opportunity to benefit. Ditto for the high cost of health insurance he or she will have to pay. The list goes on and on.

 But the fact that a pervasive opinion might not make good fiscal sense doesn't mean the opinion doesn't exist or isn't powerful. Political and business leaders need to take note: To many people, Business 101 no longer exists.

 As for the sheer act of air travel -- I've learned my lessons. So as you travel during this Thanksgiving, be safe and try to relax. I'll try to dream of that vacation I was told I needed while humming the tune to the country hit: "No shoes, no shirt, no problem."