On Airlines and Lines

Includes: AAL, LUV
by: The Operations Room

By Martin Lariviere

So I have been traveling this week (as has Gad) which has limited time for writing. It has, however, allowed for a fair amount of time to think — and experience — airports and lines. Coincidently, the Wall Street Journal’s Middle Seat column discusses how airlines are charging for the privilege of not waiting (A New Low in Airline Fees: $10 to Cut in Line, Jun 24). Most notable here is American Airline’s (NASDAQ:AMR) recent announcement of a new fee that lets customers board in Group 1 — which puts passengers after those with high frequent flyer status but before the rest of those in coach. Why are they doing it? Because people are willing to pay up for priority.

“You avoid congestion. People like that. People don’t like standing in line,” said Daniel Garton, executive vice president for marketing at AMR Corp.’s American Airlines.

It should be noted that American is relatively late to the party on this one. Gady posted on Southwest’s (NYSE:LUV) early boarding program last fall and the WSJ article has a nice side bar on the various sorts of programs different firms are offering. What surprises me is how cheap American’s fee is — $10 lets you get on early even if you don’t sit at the back of the plane. I suspect that they will raise this before to long. I say that because people will soon come to see this as a fee for carry-on luggage. Spirit caught all sorts of grief when it announced that it was going to impose such a fee — senators held news conference and threatened legislation and so on. But American is doing effectively the same thing without the blowback. I would venture that most travelers would part with $10 for at least one person in their party if it meant getting an overhead bin for sure. If enough passengers are getting on early and hogging bin space, then the only options are $10 to join the fray or $25 to check a bag. I can see only one logical choice.

The article also touches on one of my pet airline peeves: Airlines selling priority access to TSA services. I have always found it offensive that airlines could sell special access to a government service. If my security tax is the same as everyone else’s, why should they get priority? The answer here is that the TSA has a perverse notion of what they control. You might think that you are in the security process once you get in line. That is not the Homeland Security view:

Airlines can sell priority lines at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints because the government responsibility is for the actual screening lanes, not the lines leading up to TSA officers. TSA makes a distinction between “lanes” and “lines.” TSA leases space for the screening lanes; lines leading up to them are controlled by airports and airline tenants.

I never knew that the TSA could parse such details as if they were a theologian in the middle ages. This distinction — while probably legal — is absurd. The TSA has no obligation to favor one line over the other. The airline can set up a fast lane to the TSA agent but I don’t see why the TSA is obliged to serve one queue before the other.