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Published: Monday, 4/26/2010

Helpful hints for airlines' bean counters

THE campaign by America's commercial airlines to squeeze every last nickel out of customers is intensifying. In fact, they're piling on. Spirit Airlines has announced it will begin charging for carry-on bags passengers bring aboard.

We're not talking pocket change here. How does $45 sound? Spirit is not a major player in the industry, but the big boys who are - though they are holding off for now - have said they will watch this new development closely.

Translation: Hey, why didn't we think of that?

It's true that passengers stuff everything they own into the overhead bins to avoid the fees the airlines charge for checked baggage. But what choice do they have? Checking bags can add a hundred bucks or more to the cost of the trip.

The CEO of Spirit, in an e-mail to his customers, lifts spin-doctoring to an art form. The new fee, he says, will make boarding easier and deplaning faster because passengers will no longer have to struggle with overstuffed overhead bins.

What's next? Twenty bucks for transporting the jacket on your back, 15 for the sweater?

I've got an idea for the airlines. Since they've pretty much discontinued complimentary meal service (not a bad thing), maybe they could start charging a $10 user fee for lowering the tray table. People are bringing aboard their own food now, and they need some place to put it.

Why am I passing this along to the airlines, you ask? Because I'd be surprised if it hasn't already occurred to some empty suit at their corporate headquarters.

In fact, I took the liberty of calling the bean-counters at East-West by South-Southeast Airlines to offer my assistance.

Here is what I remember of our conversation:

"Hello. Welcome to East-West by South-Southeast Airlines. If you are calling to make a reservation, press one. If you are calling to cancel a reservation, press two. If you are calling to offer new and innovative ways we can separate our passengers from their money, your call is very important to us. Press three or stay on the line."

How convenient. I press three. After seven minutes of listening to tinny music - I think it was "Shut Up and Get on the Plane" by the Drive-by Truckers, I hear a pleasant female voice.

Her: "East-West by South-Southeast Airlines. How can you help us today?"

Me: "Hello. I'm an occasional customer of yours and I don't think you guys have given enough thought to this fee business. I have some suggestions that could really boost your revenues."

Her: "Now that's what we want to hear. By the way, this phone call may be monitored or recorded because you might have something we can actually use."

Me: "Fine. By the way, I have to give you credit. That fee for carry-on baggage? Truly inspired. But why stop there?"

Her: "I'm listening. In fact, so is everybody else. I just put you on speakerphone."

Me: "All right. Listen up. First thing you do is strike a deal with McDonald's. People are bringing Big Macs aboard and you're not getting a penny. Sell burgers at 30,000 feet for less than they cost in the terminal and it's a license to print money."

Her: "Whoa. Good one. We'll get on it."

Me: "Here's one that will annoy everybody, but it's a sure money-maker. Push a portable karaoke machine up and down the aisles and charge $5 a song. Then charge the other passengers a buck apiece to make the singer sit down and shut up."

Her: "Wow. A win-win."

Me: "Yes indeed. And you know that jump seat in the cockpit behind the pilot? Sell your passengers the right to sit there during the flight. Fifty bucks for 10 minutes. Who wouldn't want that opportunity?"

Her: "What about the FAA?"

Me: "Tell 'em to get in line. Fifty bucks for 10 minutes."

Her: "Any other bright ideas?"

Me: "Yes. Offer a deplaning lottery on every flight. Sell lottery tickets by rows. If your row comes up when you land, you get to gather your belongings and exit first."

Her: "It's genius. Anything else?"

Me: "Yes. Pay toilets. People will be begging you to break a twenty. They'll probably tell you to keep the change."

Her: "Sir, we can't thank you enough. May we send you a voucher good for $10 off your next carry-on fee?"

Me: "Absolutely not. How can you make any money giving that stuff away?"

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at:

twalton@theblade.com



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