Encounters with Bad Service Design (Airlines)

This whole thing with the airlines charging for bags. Call it short-sighted or wrong-headed, it really seems like a bad solution. Or at least, the airlines aren't considering the full spectrum of the problem. They are seeing the problem only through the lens of fuel costs, and not at all through the lens of customer experience. I predict that the recent changes to the fee structure is going to cost the airlines more trouble than it is worth. When I first heard about American Airlines adding charges to checked bags (with other airlines following suit), I shuddered. Let's face it, there are a lot of things that prompt flyers to avoid checking bags these days, and it's only gotten worse with post-9/11 security measures. Between the airlines and the TSA, checking bags is a pretty awful aspect of customer experience in air travel. And now they expect people to pay for this experience.

There are three reasons people avoid checking bags. The first is that the airlines make it just too difficult to deposit your bags. The queues at airport check-in are typically terrible and often force you to risk missing your flight. I've had many experiences arriving 90 minutes to 2 hours early to the airport, only to barely make my flight because I spent so much time waiting to check my bags. The check-in counters are never adequately staffed and are clearly one of the first places to suffer when airlines cut back on costs. It is much easier and faster to go straight to security with your over-stuffed rolling bag and directly to the plane.

The second reason has to do with handling. We're all suspicious of what happens to our bags once they disappear down the conveyor belt. How many times is that bag going to be dropped, kicked, crushed, nicked, or even searched in its time moving onto and off of the plane? Especially now that we know that airport employees can open and search our bags with impunity, there is a level of violation associated with leaving your luggage in the hands of the airline. Of course, we all want to travel safe, and are happy to have potentially dangerous items checked and removed from other people's luggage. But you can't help but feel personally affronted by all the abuse your bags get.

The third reason has to do with recovery, or baggage claim. The airlines will say this is the airport's fault, not theirs. But it is confounding how long it can take for your bags to reach the conveyor belt in baggage claim. And if the airlines can't control this part of the experience, do they have a right to charge extra for bag handling?

Now, if I'm paying an explicit fee to check my bags, I will have an expectation that all three of these things will be improved as a service I am specifically paying for. Are the airlines prepared to deliver on this? I doubt it.

Paying separately for one's bags raises people's expectations for the service they will receive. If I pay $15-$30 to check my bags on each flight, I'm going to expect them to be checked efficiently and come rolling out of baggage claim tout de suite, rather than the 45-60 minute waits I've often had at many airports. And if a bag is lost or mishandled? My tolerance level is going to be nil. I'll repeat it again. Are the airlines prepared to handle this additional level of expectation that they are building into the experience?

And let's look at the on-board experience that not checking bags creates. (We all know that the byproduct of charging for checked bags will mean a proliferation of carry-on bags.) It affords all the kinds of selfish, rude behaviour that makes air travel so unpleasant most of the time. Take the overhead bins. There is never enough room in the overhead if each seat has a carry-on size suitcase, and I dislike the way people assume that someone else will not be using their storage space, just because they got there first.

People charge the boarding process in order to be first on the plane to get their roller bags in the bins, because there isn't enough room for everyone's. If you board later, there is often not even enough room in the overhead to stuff your jacket, let alone a book bag or a small backpack.

We rely on the fact that our neighbors will have varying amounts of carry-on material, so that if we have a large bag, we hope the guy next to us will have just a briefcase to put under the seat in front. The problem is that you can't rely on this. Sometimes we all have large bags, and then it becomes an ugly first-come, first-served competition.

I've had a frustrated flight attendant slam someone's carry-on suitcase into the backpack containing my laptop, just in an effort to get everyone seated. I've also overheard other passengers griping when someone moves their things over to create more space. How do we expect a bunch of strangers to reconcile the ten-pounds-of-$#@&-in-a-five-pound-bag phenomenon? Is it fair when one passenger loads up the bin with a suitcase, a briefcase, and two dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, leaving another passenger no choice but to stuff a duffel bag under the seat or wander the aisle with a flight attendant, searching for an open spot? Should overhead bins be evenly divided into quadrants for the 4-6 seats sharing them, with a seat assignment to each quadrant? But that would leave less space than could accommodate the average carryon suitcase. It's the same phenomenon in a city parking garage where the Ford Expedition "steals" space from a neighboring Civic. God forbid two Expeditions have to park side-by-side.

And I've always wondered why the luggage industry hasn't done more to work with the overhead bin restrictions. I realize that overhead bins vary in size on different aircraft, but many of the bags that get sold as "carry-on" size are clearly too big and give people an inappropriate sense of entitlement.

And the whole weight thing is suspect, in my view. The idea that luggage weighs a lot and therefore drives up fuel charges is valid, but I am a 130 pound person who often finds myself seated next to someone who weighs 250 or more. And yet we pay the same fare. I doubt my luggage ever weighs more than 30 pounds. If we are going to use weight as a determining factor for fuel surcharges, why not take it all the way and charge passengers by their total tonnage, so to speak?

Obviously that would be extreme solution with even less dignity for passengers, but it does expose some of the twisted or incomplete logic here. I get that the airlines have to cover fuel costs somehow, and that this *seems* like a fair way to assign the burden. But in the past, we always assumed that this cost was borne trough ticket price, and that in effect, we were all effectively subsidizing the cost of checked luggage, whether or not we chose to check our bags. (Indeed, many, if not most, people consider it a bonus to be able to skip the bag check, regardless of whether their fare may be subsidizing the extra luggage carried by the family going to Disney World.) Why take a cost that is hidden to the consumer and make it transparent? That just seems like asking for trouble. When hotels first started offering internet, people were outraged to have to pay extra fees for using the hotel's network. These days, I know the cost of my hotel room includes the small surcharge built in to cover the cost of network coverage, just like it covers electricity for the TV.

People just don't like being nickel and dimed for everything. You are providing a service, not a cafeteria meal, folks. My travel experience includes my luggage, and I don't want to have to go out of my way to think through every little subcomponent of my trip. Luggage is part of travel, and my luggage is part of me.

If the end result is encouraging everyone to travel lighter, then that's probably a good thing. But I doubt that the airlines are preparing for the added level of frustration that they will be introducing to the experience. How far can passengers be pushed and prodded before the experience become untenable? We're all aware of, and surprisingly tolerant of being treated like "cattle", even in business class. But there are limits on what human dignity can bear. I wonder how this baggage fee is going to play out and how it is going to affect passenger behaviour long term. A new AP story just today noted that the airlines would now more strictly enforce the FAA-defined restrictions on carry-on sizes. We could all see that coming.

We all know that there's no free lunch. It's just a question of how a business chooses to expose its business model to its customers and what level of commitment it has to delivering a positive experience. I suspect that most of us would have preferred to pay an extra $5-10 as an embedded cost in each ticket to cover a fuel surcharge for luggage, rather than have it itemized out, especially when people with large carry-ons start getting turned away at the gate and forced to pay the additional surcharge. What if people decide that as long as they are paying $15 a bag, they might as well bring the largest bags they can and pack as much as they can? Will that help the airlines' problem?

My prediction is that at best, that this *might* solve the problem of accounting for the additional fuel costs of excess baggage, but it will hurt the airlines by raising the frustration level for both customers and employees and further degrading the passenger experience.