Airlines Should Take a Lesson From Hotels

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As I was flying from JFK to Fort Lauderdale yesterday, I learned two things. One: it's possible to be relaxed and comfortable while flying. Two: some airlines will go out of their way to make sure you're not.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a more pleasant trip through an airport, especially JFK…

  • There was virtually no security line, and the TSA guy struck up a pleasant conversation while checking my boarding pass and ID.
  • My girlfriend and I were able to take our time putting our stuff through the X-ray machine, and there were no passengers behind us pressuring us on the other side.
  • Our gate was the one closest to the security checkpoint, and boarding began a full 40 minutes before takeoff, virtually assuring an on-time departure for a plane that was only about two-thirds full.

It was a traveler’s dream. In fact, during my brief wait to board, I had a mini-epiphany: It’s not the seemingly silly security measures, the lack of leg room, or even the fee frenzy that makes air travel so pathetic these days. It’s the crowds. Want to change the travel experience entirely? Just partially empty the airport.

So there I was – sitting on the plane awaiting takeoff in a virtual state of Zen – when JetBlue reminded me and everyone else on board that airlines don’t want your travel to be relaxing. The air travel experience isn’t us-serving-passengers, it’s us-against-passengers.

Here’s what happened…

My girlfriend and I, along with another man, were sharing a three-seat row. But there were plenty of empty seats on the plane, including in the exit rows directly in front of us. So just before take-off, he offered to improve his situation and ours by moving to an empty exit row seat.

Obviously, this was better for all involved, at least for the two minutes it lasted. The nearest flight attendant saw the move and asked the guy for his boarding pass – in fact, she asked everyone sitting in the exit rows for their boarding passes – and told nearly all of them to return to their assigned seats.

At this point my girlfriend got involved. “Why can’t they sit there? What’s it hurting?” she asked. You can probably guess the flight attendant’s reply. “Because the people sitting in these rows paid extra for these seats (when the dust cleared, there was one passenger occupying the 12 seats in these two rows) and it’s not fair to them. If other people wanted exit row seats, they should have paid for them online, at the gate, or even right now: We’ll take a credit or debit card.”

So much for Zen. The people ejected from the exit rows were agitated. My girlfriend – who now had to sit sandwiched between two men nearly twice her size for two and a half hours – was agitated. The guy, now back in our row, said in a raised voice that this was his first trip on JetBlue and his last.

So much for my state of Zen.

A couple of months ago, I did a story called 8 Tips to Save at any Hotel – Including the Nation’s Trendiest. In that story, I interviewed the general manager of the W Hotel in Fort Lauderdale and asked about requesting a free upgrade while checking into a hotel. His response?

We do whatever we can to improve our guest’s experience. If we have a nicer room sitting there unused, of course we’ll try to accommodate you.

Why didn’t he say, “No, we’d never do that. The people who paid for an ocean-view room are the only ones getting one. We’d rather let those rooms go unused than give a break to a cheapskate like you. If you want a better room, buck up, buster.”

JetBlue is far and away my favorite airline. In my opinion, it’s the only airline left that in any way resembles what flying used to be. They have way more leg room. (In fact, I wrote this in-flight on my large laptop – I can’t even open it in the coach aisles of most  airlines). They also have 30 channels of cable TV in every seat. I fly JetBlue whenever I can, and I’ll pay extra to do it.

But on those exceedingly rare moments when I manage to achieve Zen while flying, please, JetBlue, and any other airline reading this: Don’t blow it for me.

Keeping customers happy isn’t hard, and it doesn’t have to cost a dime. Just do what businesses have been doing to attract and retain customers for thousands of years: Be nice.

So what do you say, readers? Is JetBlue right to leave their more expensive exit rows empty? More important, have you had any recent airline experiences, good or bad, worth sharing? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

I know... every site you visit wants you to subscribe to their newsletter. But our news and advice is actually worth reading! For 25 years, I've been making people richer without making their eyes glaze over. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!


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