Airlines can take a flying leap: We won't bargain with our lives

THE FLIP SIDE

November 10, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

For the fearful flier, these are trying times indeed. Not only does every other plane seem to be making an unscheduled landing into somebody's living room, but now the airlines are engaged in another fierce price war.

Southwest has announced some sort of buy-one, get-one-free ticket policy. Continental lets you fly for peanuts. USAir practically says: "Look, we'll fly you anywhere in the world for 20 bucks. What day is good for you?"

While the rest of the flying public reacts enthusiastically to these price wars, the fearful flier does not.

Because the fearful flier thinks: "OK, they're cutting the cost of a ticket. Now how are they making up that lost revenue?"

The fearful flier envisions the airlines scaling back maintenance crews, resulting in the overworked technician who's too exhausted to notice, oh, that loose U-bolt on the No. 2 engine.

The fearful flier figures airlines will save money by keeping planes aloft even if they were built during the Eisenhower administration.

The fearful flier figures that in place of experienced, highly skilled jet mechanics, the airlines will start using Earl, the guy from the Exxon station around the corner.

Or that instead of veteran, highlypaid pilots, the cockpits will now be populated with 22-year-olds who were flying crop-dusters in Iowa two weeks ago.

Again, this is how the fearful flier's mind works.

Paranoid? You betcha.

But that's the fearful flier's stock in trade, a raging, almost palpable paranoia that causes him to bolt upright when the plane hits even the smallest air pocket and scream: "THIS IS IT! jTC GOING DOWN!"

Paranoia aside, there is a timeless predictability to how these price wars work.

One airline will slash its fares 20 percent.

Then another airline says: "Oh, yeah? Well, we'll match that and let you bring all the carry-on luggage you want. You can even bring your TV or refrigerator if you feel like it."

Then another airline says: "Oh, yeah? Well, we'll let you bring farm animals on board! Horses, cows, pigs -- it doesn't matter to us. You want to bring your tractor, that's fine, too."

Then a fourth airline says: "Farm animals, schmarm animals! Look, we'll even land the plane in your back yard and pick you up -- save you a trip to the airport."

The point is, none of this impresses the fearful flier.

The fearful flier finds no joy in picking up the paper and seeing a recent Southwest ad that says: "THE Low Fare Sale. From $24 one way."

In fact, the fearful flier would much prefer to read a headline that says: "Airline fares to rise; millions to be invested in new planes made from an indestructible, space-age alloy."

See, the fearful flier is not cheap.

Believe me, the fearful flier is the first person to reach for his or her wallet if this will guarantee that his plane does not come barreling out of the sky and corkscrew into some cornfield.

In fact, if an airline said: "Look, instead of $49 from Baltimore to Chicago, we're charging $300, but each passenger gets a parachute and his own emergency exit," the fearful flier's first reaction would be: "Who do I make the check out to?"

Unfortunately, these price wars exert subtle pressure on the fearful flier in another way.

Invariably, some well-meaning family member or friend spots an airline commercial and chirps: "Oh, look, only $99 to fly to New Orleans! You should really take advantage of this to visit your cousin Jake."

The fearful flier, of course, replies that he does not want to visit Jake, not if it means arriving at Jake's place with singed hair and torn, soot-stained clothes, the result of an emergency crash-landing on a nearby freeway.

Which is when the well-meaning family member or friend will begin reciting the familiar litany: "Statistically speaking, airline travel is very safe. You're 400 times more likely to die in an auto accident, 600 times more likely to be struck by lightning, blah, blah, blah."

At this point, I usually say: "Look, it's my understanding that a man named Earl, who worked at the Exxon station around the corner, is now the chief mechanic for that airline."

This usually brings the conversation to a close.

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