What would you do for a cheap airfare?
If you said "anything" then you're probably going to love flying in the future. It's a place that will be filled with steals and deals, and for a lucky few who take their time to study the system, you'll be able to travel for next to nothing.
The rest of us? Not so much. And with the busy American Memorial Day holiday weekend just around the corner, many unwitting customers are about to find out just how bad it can get.
Consider what happened to Adrienne Hester, who was trying to find a flight for her father, Frank, to get from Las Vegas to Dallas recently.
"He normally flies Southwest, but the price for a roundtrip ticket was $700 plus tax and fees for the dates needed," she told me. "The senior discount for a person 65-plus was between $245 and $379 one way -- and that is pricey too. Plus, I don't want my father having a stopover of several hours or having to change multiple planes."
And so Hester looked around for a better deal.
"In desperation, I convinced him to fly Spirit Airlines," she says. The fare? Just $187.
She wishes she hadn't.
The first thing she noticed were the fees, including $70 for his carry-on and checked luggage and a $4 "Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations" fee to cover the airline's cost of "misguided and expensive regulation."
And that was just the beginning.
Hester tried to reach Spirit's customer service department, but had some trouble.
"They make it very difficult to speak to anyone," she says. "Luckily, I'm computer-savvy and simply Googled 'Spirit Airlines customer service number' since it's not on the homepage under 'Customer Service' on the bottom of the page and 'Help' takes you to questions, and not contact numbers."
(I list Spirit"s customer service contacts on my wiki, too.)
Hester was trying to reach Spirit to modify her father's ticket, which according to the site would cost her $115. But other terms applied. After the fees, he had just 60 days to use the ticket.
"If he is unable to fly in the next 60 days he loses his money on the original ticket and paid $115 to cancel," she says.
Hester can't believe an airline is allowed to operate like Spirit.
"I am dumbfounded by it all," she says. "This is the worst airline experience without leaving my house and I will never again recommend this company to anyone -- ever."
Welcome to the future
By now, most of you are probably saying to yourself, "Well, that's what you get for flying on Spirit." And the rest of you are wondering, "What's Spirit?"
Spirit represents a dystopian future of air travel that everyone denies will happen -- but deep down inside, everyone knows probably will.
It capitalizes on a human need to find a bargain, speaks to your inner gambler, and has no shame about its business model. It is the inevitable result of airline deregulation. It is what every domestic airline could look like in another decade, unless air travelers say "no, thanks."
By the way, the alternative nightmare would see the so-called "full service" carriers create an extreme two-class system, where the "haves" are given every creature comfort in exchange for their unquestioning loyalty and money, and the "have-nots" have it worse than they would under the most onerous ticket offered today by a discount airline like Spirit or Allegiant. I shudder to imagine it.
All the pieces of this future are being put in place now, starting with the reckless unbundling of fees -- now you pay extra for anything that isn't nailed down -- and ending with IATA Resolution 787, which will allow airlines to send passengers a "custom" airfare within a decade or less.
The new order of airline pricing will allow a company like Spirit to turn its sophisticated yield-management algorithms around to predict what you as an individual would probably pay for an airfare. Based on your previous spending patterns, it might also offer cheaper -- or more expensive -- baggage fees, change fees and seat reservation fees.
Under such a scenario, customers like Hester would be tagged as the passengers they are: desperate for a deal, willing to accept a low fare in exchange for obscene change fees and other prohibitive terms. If they have a problem with any of it, they can just talk to the website.
It isn't too difficult to imagine other industries embracing this idea that the prices and rules should be flexible, depending on who you are.
But do you want to live in that world?