Sunday, December 18, 2005

Self-loading cargo
If you’re ashamed to care, go by air
Is there an industry that cares less about its customers than the airlines? Car clampers and back street loan sharks come to mind, perhaps because the three have features in common.
You don’t go to a loan shark unless you have no option. As a client towards the posh end of the business once said to me ‘only the rich are in a position to borrow money cheaply’. You borrow at exorbitant rates because you are desperate or greedy to spend and you travel cattle class because you can’t afford the holiday if you pay for a decent seat and are too greedy to go without a holiday you can’t really afford. Once in the clutches of the airline you are effectively a prisoner and do as you are told because they make the rules, car clamper style, and will make your life even more miserable if you try to stick up for your rights to civilised treatment.
Yet it’s our own fault. In much the same way that we let the processed food companies ruin our health for the sake of convenience and cheapness, so we let ourselves be bullied, crushed, herded around, deprived of sleep and exposed to a high risk of DVT for the sake of short transit times and cheap fares. It’s summed up in the airline term for economy class passengers: they call us self-loading cargo.
In other areas of the economy suppliers compete on price, quality and service. A ticket for a long haul flight is nearly indistinguishable between one carrier and another: they go at the same speed, on some routes at much the same time of day, and offer service that in economy class is uniformly minimal, leaving us to buy on the basis of price alone. In fact the airlines have devised a form of inverse competition. The least service means the lowest costs and the biggest profits so they reduce service to the lowest level the customer will tolerate and keep on reducing it, trying to find the point of rebellion. They have not found it yet and we who buy on price alone are their lawful prey. And if you think things could get no worse, think again.
Today I read that Flybe, a ‘budget’ airline (it’s their budget they worry about, not ours) are to introduce a charge for baggage. The disingenuous rationalisation for this is that those with baggage will pay the handling fee the airport charges Flybe, instead of it being ‘unfairly spread across all the people on the aircraft’. Has the Flybe board thought this one through? You bet they have. They will make a huge saving on airport charges and in return will reduce fares by just one pound. The fact that passengers will try to take their holiday luggage as cabin baggage, that there will be fights (literally, sooner or later) over the space in the overhead lockers, boarding and disembarking will take even longer, passengers will have to carry, or wheel, their luggage across miles of corridor and the imposition of discomfort and inconvenience on the paying customer will have been taken to a new low is of no concern to them. Cargo is not fully self-loading until it loads its own baggage or pays for the service. They can chalk up another first in the dehumanising race and move on to the next stage – a charge to use the lavatories perhaps, with a ‘complementary’ catheter if you agree to stay in your seat for the entire flight.
There is a deep malaise here. We put up with call centres whose operators are always fewer than the number of people trying to get through, banks that treat you as a mere number, innumerable firms that refuse to put their telephone numbers on their website lest you should call and try to speak to someone like in the bad old days, hospitals that buy their food pre-cooked from a hundred miles away and airlines that cannot be bothered to pre-book seats, try to kid you that they don’t know how many babies will be on board (families with babies turning up on the off chance of a few spare seats?), expect you to accept a 31 inch seat pitch for twelve hours and demand you turn up three hours before the flight because they won’t organise themselves to do the job any quicker. And we put up with it. We come close to asking for more because we always want the next improvement to be in price, not quality or service. It seems that at the same time as we expand our respect for others, become more tolerant of what was once unaccepted, so we lose our respect for ourselves. Has PC made us so concerned not to give offence that we no longer recognise when we are being insulted, belittled, scorned, used and humiliated?
The judge who recently said that there were circumstances in which women who were raped carried some of the responsibility themselves was much criticised, but he had a point. The whole trend is a variation on the law of the jungle that says that the animal that shows itself to be weak, sick or not looking out for itself is the first to attract the attentions of the predator. We have stopped caring and we have only ourselves to blame for the consequences.
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.
Bring on the Ides of March!