Thursday, August 5

Being Transparent: Sometimes It's Stupid


It has been months, but people are still talking about it. Last year, Spirit Airlines floated the idea of charging a "passenger usage fee" to cover the costs associated with buying a ticket. Specifically, it would charge a $5 to $10 fee if you booked a flight anywhere other than a Spirit Airlines ticket desk.

This year, Spirit Airlines was considering the opposite. The new fee idea charges passengers for getting help from one of its employees (hat tip: Andrew Weaver. It's not all that novel, given that some airlines already charge as much as $25 to place a reservation over the phone.

And while it might not happen in the near future, CEO Ben Baldanza is not morally opposed to charging a fee to use the bathroom. The justification for it, and all the other charges (including carry-on bag charges and seats that don't recline), was to keep the base fairly low.

Refreshing Transparency Or Just Plain Stupid?

Baldanza clearly has the fragile brand theory on his side. He's always inventing ways to make what most people consider a necessity much more like a luxury. He's unapologetic for it.

Spirit Airlines is fighting to be the low fare leader and treating people a little less favorably than parcels on a FedEx flight. Ultimately, customers have a choice. And some people, reportedly, like it.

This truly blows some holes in many modern business theories. Spirit Airlines customers aren't looking for relationships. They aren't looking for comfort. They aren't looking for anything but the cheapest possible fare to get from point A to B.

The online poll on USA Today Travel shows 59 percent of the people think it's a bad idea; 23 percent think it's a good idea. And 19 percent think it's a good idea if it speeds up boarding because many delays are created by carry-on luggage. The irony there is that the airlines industry created the carry-on problem because of mishandling bags and charging to check them.

Here's the thing. Any company can do whatever it wants, and most of the backlash seems to be from concerns that other airlines will adopt policies that seem idiotic on their face because a heavy enough percentage of people are willing to go for low air fares.

At the same time, Baldanza has succeeded in ginning up publicity in his quest to make Southwest Airlines look like a luxury flight. It's crazy, but seems to be working for him and his airline.

Free Publicity For Silly Ideas Works Until They Stick.

However, there is a caveat. What works today will eventually not work tomorrow. Right now, given the economy, people are hustling and bustling to cut a few dollars anywhere they can. Once the economy stabilizes, assuming the federal government cranks back its aim to make profit a sin, then price conscious flyers might not be so keen on the Baldanza concept.

If that happens, even if all airlines followed Spirit Airlines' lead, Baldanza will be remembered for the push to make everything an extra. Personally, I'm not sure if such a concept is sustainable. Nobody really wants to need a day of recovery after a flight.

Overall, customers want a fair price for what is being promised. The problem for the airline industry is they struggle to keep their promises because most of them allowed price wars to be their only product differential. Add to this the constant pressure for catering to people who don't care about anything but price, and sooner or later you run out of things to cut.

It seems to me that Baldanza is smart for the short-term gain. But over the long haul, people will remember him as the guy who considered charging for bathroom privileges. In a down economy, people might take it. In an up economy, he's a jerk.

Sometimes being transparent is stupid. I don't mean in an intellectual way. I mean in a long-term strategy kind of way. Not all ideas need to spill out of your mouth. And not everything that spills out of your mouth needs to be published ad nauseum, especially when people figure out Baldanza is trying to find a way to charge you for not speaking to a live person or charging you for speaking to a live person. That is his real dream come true.

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