American Airlines' announcement last week that it would charge $15 for a checked bag was met by disdain and contempt in the communications industry.
It was fun to read AA's outside PR flack explain the strategy: "We understood that consumers would be frustrated with another fee. Precisely for that reason; we did our best to communicate the full impact that oil is having on our business."
A guru at one of the branding elite firms countered that rationale, though: "The fuel crisis is so staggering for them internally that they have to take the PR hit. It's almost a no-win situation because customers don't want to hear about the problems of a giant corporation."
Most of the communicators I talked to seemed to concur with the flack or the guru.
I heard a lot of about a lack of transparency and the likelihood that unsuspecting travelers would be in for quite a shock at airports. Some said that AA didn't explain, let alone promote, an idea as much as defer the unpleasant policy details to the front-line troops to handle. It wasn't a communications strategy at all, but rather a corporate shrug. Others said that we could have expected little else.
Maybe so, but it's all rather academic, isn't it? AA could have claimed that evil monkeys had taken control of the company's executive suite. Explanations and ducking are not communications strategies, however much we wrap the activities in the blather of branding.
The AA brand was, and is, irrelevant.
Travelers are going to gripe at the airport anyway, since the places are mostly constructed, and certainly managed, to frustrate, confuse, and offend anybody who has the misfortune to pass through. No information, the indignities of security provisions, the vagaries of weather, machinery, and human foibles...remind me what there is not to hate about the experience.
Adding what would amount to a stealth, surprise fee won't make the travel experience much worse. There are already lots of fees attached to airline tickets, so much so that the pricing they advertise has little in common with the ultimate cost.
Airfares are one of the last prices that have no basis in the reality of consumer experience. As a consumer, I can come up with a story for why things cost what they cost...even if I'm wrong, I have this broad equation that assigns value to production and, thereafter, my consumption.
Not so much with airfares. What somebody pays for a seat is a mystery, which then changes from one moment to the next.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, especially when it comes to the soaring costs of fuel.
This latest event was a chance for the AA brand to become relevant. Here's how:
- Anybody who has ever filled a gas tank or driven a vehicle understands the math; you buy fuel, and you can get so many miles out of it. I may not like the math, but it makes intuitive sense to me
- If this math is truly driving AA's fee increase, why did it choose to detach the cost from any semblance of meaning for travelers?
- It would have been very reasonable for AA to create a pricing variable that it applied to routes, based on miles traveled. It could be updated daily, and provide a "fuel cost multiple" to the price of the ticket. It certainly wouldn't be greeted as good news, but everyone would understand it and, I bet, understand and accept it
- Another approach would have been to invent a load discount that it applied to seats on less-filled planes. Flying and airplane costs effectively the same irrespective of how many people are riding in it, so why not let consumers know that they could be charged less so as to "make whole" one flight vs. elbowing into a nearly-full one? Kinda like swapping carbon credits, or something
Transparency was only half of American's problem, and thinking consumers wouldn't blink was the other half. The flack and the guru asked the wrong question, so they got the wrong answer.
They were both right...and both utterly wrong. AA could have used this event to communicate more meaningfully, and memorably, with consumers who may very well have been willing to give it their attention. If only AA had tried.
Being irrelevant was its true sin; how AA did it is, well, irrelevant.