A la carte too far?

Where on earth will it end? Is a la carte pricing just the flavor of the month or the magic bullet of the decade? Or are the so-called ‘legacy’ carriers simply grasping at straws?

I was strutting my usual stuff at an ‘a la carte airline pricing’ conference the other day – that the airlines had only themselves to blame for the disastrous fall in premium cabin sales (10 percent of passengers but 40 percent of revenues) by failing to understand that their ‘branding,’ their class system as it evolved over the past 40 years, had got out of sync with the evolving needs of business passengers, et cetera – when news came through that British Airways plans to make travelers pay to choose their seats before they fly. 

So you’ve chosen a fare – based upon time and class of travel, and how flexible you need to be – and now BA has the chutzpah to charge cattle-class passengers £10 each way for flights within Europe and £20 long-haul; £60 in long-haul; and another £50 in an emergency exit row.  How about auctioning prime seats for peak and off-peak flights on different days of the week, or at different seasons?  Come to that, how about selling ‘season’ tickets to seasoned travelers; or a ‘corporate row’ of seats in a prime section of the cabin?

Presumably, ‘default’ seating for the ‘unreserved’ will be the dreaded ‘pig-in-the-middle’ seat between the wide-bodied couple hoping they can spread out over that extra seat between them. Shall we soon see charges for cabin baggage, and the ‘real estate’ of the overhead racks above your head?     

By the time they have paid for checked-in luggage – and failed to un-tick the box for ‘optional’ travel insurance – travelers may well find that the price of an air ticket they have purchased online have more than tripled when it comes to the final amount charged. Most major airlines, including American Airlines, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Delta, have introduced baggage fees. BA now charges £40 to check in a second piece of baggage on long-haul flights; and £35 for short-haul flights. And I have just heard that a few major airlines in the States, including American, Delta and United, have imposed yet another fee of $10 on travelers on ‘key’ holiday travel days.    

Indeed, where will it end? Add the in-flight costs for meals, drinks, pillows, seat-back videos and the like, paid for by swiping your card each time, and the cost of a flight becomes a moveable feast. Figuring out the best deal for the route will mean figuring out   the extra fees in advance. And online booking could become a nightmare with a blizzard of options. Good luck to corporate travel planners.

A la carte can work well for the traveler, provided it is transparent and offers them choice. After all, why pay for meals and drinks that you don’t need – subsidizing the chap next to you who is eating drinking everything in sight; or for checking bags if I only have hand baggage.   And I certainly do not mind paying for ‘speedy boarding’ on EasyJet if it enables me to get an aisle seat in an emergency exit row with more leg room.

But I believe it can only work on short-haul travel; or long-haul travel with a one-class cabin – such as Air Asia’s low-cost flights between London and Kuala Lumpur. .

Major airlines have not understood that the no-frills model they have adopted in a frantic attempt to re-invent themselves as low-cost carriers on short-haul routes, can only work for them for essentially single-class travel (forget BA’s fatuous ‘moving curtain’ to segregate Club Europe passengers from the hoi polloi) on short-haul routes. 

A la carte pricing is meaningless in the classic multi-class cabin system that has evolved on long-haul routes – if only because price and ‘quality’ differential has become so large. First class can cost twice the price of business class, which in turn costs up to four times more than a flexible economy ticket and up to 20 times more than the cheapest tickets in the back cabin; while premium economy costs at least three times more than the cheapest economy fare. A la carte can only work within each type of cabin.

The basic promise of the premium cabins is to have a bigger seat with hierarchical degrees of recline, and more legroom.   The bells and whistles are just, bells and whistles.

And what happens if some prime seats are not reserved? Will there be a scramble for them once the plane is in the air?  What if they are given away indiscriminately before departure? I can think of few more tempting incitements to air rage.

Here comes KLM with its new ‘economy zone’ on inter-continental flights – an a la carte option in economy. Pay between $112 and $210 for ‘3.9ins more legroom and back supports that can recline twice as far,’ whatever that means, for a single leg of the journey.

Skytrax Research (www.airlinequality.com) can help you figure out the best, and worst, seats in premium cabins, along with seat dimensions and seating tips, on long-haul flights, for more than 325 airlines around the world. Seat plans at www.seatguru.com show you which seats to ask for, and which to avoid, on more than 60 airlines, including Air France, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas.  Select an airline and an aircraft type, move your mouse over the seating plan, and seat descriptions will appear (green designates a ‘very good seat,’ yellow, ‘be aware!’ and red, a ‘bad seat.’  Seatplans.com (a rival to Seatguru.com) offers seating plans, class by class and aircraft by aircraft, and flight reviews for about 80 airlines.

Flatseats.com compares first- and business-class ‘lie-flat’ beds and (nearly horizontal) ‘angled flat-seats,’ together with ‘sleep comfort ratings’ for about 40 airlines around the world.

Meanwhile, Janys Harvey, a reader in Paris, writes, ‘For years I have bought three adjoining seats in economy and slept like a baby, completely flat. The price is always much less than business class and you get more real estate. But don’t forget to bring an extra pillow.’ Except that another reader (this is a true story) found the two seats he had booked to stretch out in were on either side of the aisle.

So caveat emptor. And be aware that airlines are adept at changing aircraft type at the last minute, sending the best laid advance seating plans into disarray.

And think about this: whenever did dining a la carte in a posh restaurant work out cheaper than the set menu?

Roger Collis - www.rogercollis.co.uk