Tycoon class

Posted: Sep 13, 2003 12:00 AM
The airlines plead that they continue to lose money, though they had a reassuring quarter. There has been a lot of talk about a passengers' bill of rights, and it is true that the airlines are indifferent to substantive complaints of their customers. Yes, they will attempt to give quicker service when asked about flights and departure times, relying fruitfully on the Internet. What they studiously avoid discussing is the piracy that attaches to business class travel.

Regulation of airfares is effected by competition, which is as it should be. What is largely unnoticed is that in business class there is practically no competition. All airlines opportunize on the customer who craves uncramped travel.

Getting the price of an air ticket is something akin to shopping in a Chinese bazaar, one traveler recently commented. It is true that there are services -- one thinks of Expedia.com -- which will line up airfares from Point A to Point B with marvelous speed, permitting you to give your preferences for date and time of departure, and to opt for nonstop. But if you want business class, the fares are pretty uniform. Uniformly high.

An example, only one week old. To travel Washington to Phoenix to New York is $600, economy. By business class it is $2,800. To travel New York to Geneva by economy is $500, by business, $3,000. The penalty, in the first instance, is about 450 percent. In the second, 600 percent. It's easy enough to divine the undisclosed reason for the high penalty fare -- the airlines find people who will pay the price. What is hard to find is an objective reason for the larceny. There is more leg room and hip room in business, but not six times as much.

The perpetual quarrel over the regulation of air traffic eased off after 9/11, in part owing to the sharp decline in air travel. Air travel was severely affected and some airlines had to put a part of their inventory of planes into cold storage. The traveling public sensed that the travails of travel, which include baring one's feet in order to establish that there is no hidden nitroglycerine under your sole, are accepted as part of the price we pay for travel in the Age of Terrorism.

The airlines apparently ignore the resentment felt by those, especially older people, who yearn for the relative comfort of travel in business class accommodations but can't afford the tariff. Of if they can afford it, are resentful at their complicity in the piracy. The traveler to Geneva by business class is accepting a surcharge of about $475 dollars per hour of travel. To pay $475 per hour to permit you to stretch your legs or to lean back in your seat an extra 15 degrees is resented as idolatrous indulgence. It is the equivalent of paying not $200 for a hotel room, but $1,800, because it is 25 percent larger. "Why do you travel third class?" I once asked an urbane Austrian intellectual who bridled at self-indulgence. "Because," he said, "there is no fourth class."

The late William Rickenbacker, the inventive and witty son of the war ace and president of (the late) Eastern Airlines, proposed 40 years ago a sensible way to permit the traveler a range of choices and the airlines their deserved profit. The ongoing mistake, he reasoned, is the airline's serving simultaneously as carrier and as marketer. The way to go, he counseled, is for the airline to auction its space in great blocks. "Who will pay $20 million for space on 5,000 Eastern Airlines flights, New York to Miami, Jan. 1 to July 1? ... Do I hear $22 million? Going for $21.5 million, going ... gone."

Let the wholesaler then sell the tickets for whatever price he can get, which takes into account the urgency of the flight and the comfort level. That broker would send you business class to Geneva for $100 -- if the seat you occupy would otherwise go empty.

The wholesale broker could, without inflicting pain, vary the price of an airplane passage, taking into account all relevant factors. As it stands now, the traveler burns with resentment at being asked to pay six times the cost of the lesser ticket.

But the problems of the business class traveler aren't likely to arrest the attention of our governors, and elderly people are difficult to organize. Perhaps this is one for the AARP.