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Travel and You

Air Fare Tied to Service

August 21, 1988|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Some savvy airline people are predicting the end of the low-fare era, in favor of a re-emphasis on higher standards of service.

Many carriers have found that low fares and top-quality service are incompatible. Service costs money and, at the deeply discounted seat prices that some airlines are charging nowadays, it can't always be delivered as well as they would like.

A large segment of the traveling public is growing increasingly unhappy about it, too. The tired old theory that if the price is right, the public will buy it, apparently isn't valid.

It may, in fact, never have been valid. But it was a large part of the economic rationalization offered for deregulating the airline industry.

No matter what kind of savings are offered, consumers are starting to indicate that they are not prepared to tolerate poorly trained, ill-informed and/or uncommunicative airline employees. They will not cheerfully accept cold coffee, warm beer or cardboard-textured sandwiches.

Nor will they put up with dirty aircraft interiors, as I observed recently upon boarding a flight to San Francisco. The plane was turning around after arriving from the Bay Area and, although smoking is no longer allowed on such short flights, the ashtray at one lady's seat nevertheless was full . . . of gum wrappers, tissues and who knows what else.

Refused to Be Seated

Complaining loudly, she removed the ashtray from the armrest and refused to be seated until the flight attendant had tipped the refuse into the trash bin in the galley.

In-flight magazines, telephone answering capability, airport signage . . . whether we realize it or not, each of these things in some way impacts our travel experience.

Unfortunately, it's a truism that you get what you pay for. And the airlines, their yields depressed by cutthroat, low-ball fares, can't always afford to pay for top-of-the-line passenger amenities.

The best, if not the only , alternative, then, would seem to be to raise fares.

There won't be massive increases overnight; that would do more harm than good to the travel market. But the feeling among many is that fares will start to move upward before the end of the year.

Then, maybe, carriers will begin to polish their service images.

The airline difficulties began, to a large extent, with deregulation. That law brought a lot of low-cost, few-frills (or no-frills) competitors into the business, who threatened to siphon traffic away from established companies.

For a while the novelty of having access to a People Express or a Pacific East, or any of the dozens of other post-deregulation discount air carriers, gave the public a false sense of security. Just how false can be gauged from the fact that People Express, Pacific East and most of those others are no longer around.

Those carriers openly advertised and promoted themselves as cheap, take-it-or-leave-it operators that could be accepted or rejected on that basis. Even so, existing carriers, those that have traditionally stressed service, for some reason felt compelled to compete on the basis of price.

Cuts Included Service

And so the downward pressure on fares increased and airline yields declined. Cutting costs became a matter of some urgency . . . and that included expenditures on service-related items.

The pendulum has swung in that direction for many months and is beginning to swing the other way, as was inevitable.

Some observers feel that the more service-oriented, established carriers should have allowed the upstart "cheapies" to develop their own markets, offering basic transportation at rock-bottom prices.

But such a scenario goes counter to the nature of airline managements. They live (and die) by the rule: Never let anybody take market share away from you if you can possibly avoid it.

If avoiding it means matching fares that you know to be uneconomical, so be it. That knee-jerk reaction to the competition has brought the airline industry to its present state, in which service in the air--and on the ground--is, by and large, sub-par, and customer relations are not good.

It's not just customer dissatisfaction that is making airlines re-think their service policies. Congress has become sufficiently concerned about the decline in standards to make it clear that, if the industry won't clean up its act voluntarily, the act will be cleaned up by federal reregulation.

And, if there's one thing the airlines don't want, it's a return to tight government regulation. They will likely find a way to avert that threat.

But the process will take money, and that money has to come in the form of higher fares.

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