You’ve probably heard about Spirit Airlines’ decision to charge customers for carry on baggage–$30 per bag if purchased in advance, or $45 “at the door.” You’ll still get your one free “personal item.”  This latest example of an airline unbundling one more feature of its service offering resulted in a promise to Sen. Charles Schumer (D, NY) from five other major airlines that they will not follow Spirit’s lead, at least for now.

Spirit claims on its website that this charge will lower overall costs to passengers and improve service.  Here’s how this is supposed to work:  fares will be lowered somewhat, as will fees for checked baggage.  Since carry on bags have a big impact on how long it takes to board and to deplane (according to Spirit, but many passengers will probably agree), reducing the number of carry on bags on a flight will reduce turnaround time and get passengers off the plane more quickly once it has arrived at its destination.  Security lines will also move more quickly (ignoring the effect of passengers traveling on other carriers who will still have their carry on bags).

One wonders whether Spirit gathered any consumer intelligence or conducted any experiments to arrive at this decision.  Airlines have had varying success at generating revenues by implementing fees for service features that were once bundled into the fare.  US Airways, for example, seems to have retreated from charging for non-alcoholic beverages (including bottled water).  JetBlue has started charging for headphones but recent experience suggests that on some flights they still may give them out for free once the plane has left the gate.  Fees for checked bags may stick–as long as you get that free carry-on–but any additional fee gives a competitor a potential point of differentiation.  Have you seen the Southwest commercial, “Battle Cry,” where the ramp crew, in the manner of sports fans, flash the passengers on a rival airline with “BAGS FLY FREE” spelled out across their chests?

People’s Express was one of the first post de-regulation airlines built around a low cost no-frills business model, and perhaps the first to charge for checked baggage ($3 per bag).  Many elements of PE resembled Southwest’s model–one type of aircraft, open seating, and really large overhead compartments for those carry-on bags.  Food and drink were available for purchase, and all the seats on a given flight were the same price.  In many ways, the experience was more like being on a train or bus than an airplane, and with one-way fares between Newark and cities like Boston as low as $19, a lot of passengers were likely switching from those modes.   There’s no question that PE helped democratize flying, overcoming the affordability barrier for many passengers.  Following it’s initial success, People’s Express went on a buying spree (taking on a lot of debt) and the legacy carriers discovered yield management, enabling them to match or come close to PE’s fares for at least some passengers.  With all that debt, PE abandoned its original customer value proposition and profit formula and began to look more like other airlines.  Ultimately, PE was acquired by Texas Air and ceased to exist as a brand.

Whenever an airline makes a move like charging for carry-on bags or for using the lavatory (Ryanair), I can’t help but wonder if they even have a customer value proposition.  One problem may be that flying on an airplane is only a means to an end (the job that the consumer wants to do at the other end of the flight) rather than an end in itself.  This makes it hard to find a price that both matches the value to the passenger (which is a function of the value of completing the job at the destination) and the cost of providing the service, plus some profit.  The carriers have long inferred that business travelers place more value on the job to be done at the destination, and they have implemented a variety of pricing strategies to segment their customers based on the assumption that leisure travelers are far more price sensitive.  However, most of the assumptions about pricing do not reflect any understanding of the ways customers evaluate pricing relative to the value of the jobs to be done.  In the absence of such understanding, carriers have resorted to “mechanical” solutions to pricing and revenue generation.

Actions like Spirit’s carry-on fee often provide new instances of the law of unintended consequences.  It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few months.  Will Spirit retreat, or will other carriers follow suit?

Copyright 2010 by David G. Bakken.  All rights reserved.