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What Are You Buying When You Buy an Airline Ticket?

I was flying Spirit a couple of weeks ago, and when I arrived at the gate instead of the Spirit Airlines aircraft I discovered a North American Airlines 757 pulled up at LaGuardia.  North American, which used to offer scheduled service between New York and Nigeria, Guyana and some other random locales, now offers charter service to sports teams, politicians and sundry others.

I was actually pretty happy at that sight, as I was dreading Spirit’s legroom situation (the situation is that there is no legroom) and when we boarded we were happy to find ourselves in the non-descript, non-knee-challenging seats of an ancient 757.  Added bonus:  unlike Spirit they did not charge for sodas and pretzels.

On our return, I found the same situation:  North American Airlines plane with in-flight movie (Despicable Me) and free soda.  Made my $160 Spirit ticket to Florida over Christmas seem like a bargain.

And it made me think:  when we buy a ticket, what are we entitled to?  Are we just guaranteeing that we get from here to there?  In my case, the replacement aircraft was an improvement.  But what if we were on JetBlue?  The North American plane, without live TV and the JetBlue legroom, would have been a major disappointment.  In fact, a quick search found that this exact situation has happened, with JetBlue offering nominal compensation.

But when they sell a ticket on JetBlue, are they guaranteeing the JetBlue experience, or are they guaranteeing that you’ll get to Fort Lauderdale?  If you reserved a room at the Ritz Carlton, they wouldn’t move you to a Courtyard and charge you the same price saying that you’ll be sleeping either way.

What do people think?  Are airlines selling the whole experience, or are they just selling the ability to get to your destination?  A given airline doesn’t charge more for one of its aircraft outfitted with TV while charging less for aircraft that do not include schmancy amenities.  It would suggest that they see no value in in-flight experience (or they feel they’re unable to charge for it).  Does a ticket just guarantee you’ll get where you’re going?

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  1. Brand recognition has a value. People go a a certain brand and are willing to pay more for all sorts of different reasons: the experience (Virgin), services, sense of security/trust in their planes, types of planes they fly (some people hate propeller planes), etc. If I bought a ticket on Virgin and they put me on a Delta plane, you bet I’d want compensation ;-) Even if the plane ticket is 160$ and they basically end up taking you there which is great at 160$, I could see many people having a case in getting compensation but I bet the rules say “we reserve the right to switch the plane without any compensation” or something like that. I’m surprised that JetBlue would do something like that; it might make people think twice next time they buy a ticket. People like to be sure about what they’re buying, people spend more and more time researching the details. Another example: let’s say I bought a ticket on Allegiant, cheap airline, gets you there. I personally trust them and the quality of their maintenance. If they switched the plane on me for some unknown “wet leased aircraft”, I’m not sure I’d be all psyched even if it had more ameneties. That sub-contractor probably cuts corners all over the place. And I bet the contract is just like the one that the legacy airlines have with their feeders: if something happens, it’s not our fault.

  2. This happens so rarely in American aviation (I presume most of the major airlines labor agreements strictly prohibit such “subcontracting”) that it’s not much of an issue. Of course, equipment swaps happen with far more regularity. I think most of us would agree that if your airline substitutes another aircraft from its fleet for your aircraft — even if you lose some useful in-flight features like personal TVs — you’re not legally entitled to anything.

    It would, of course, be nice for the airline to notice this type of inconvenience, and comp you a drink or something, but that’s pretty much up to the carrier and their commitment to customer service. Several years ago, I was flying SAS in biz class across the Atlantic and they substituted their intra-European 767 for a transatlantic aircraft. This resulted in a worse biz class seat. At the jetway, a customer service agent had a wad of $100 bills and peeled off several for each biz class pax for the inconvenience. I was happy as a clam (getting paid $500 for an award ticket, and still having a biz class flight).

    Switching operators, though, is a different story. When you buy a ticket on Jetblue, you presumably might be buying the ticket to specifically fly Jetblue. (Agreed, when you buy a ticket on Spirit, you’d probably prefer to fly somebody else!). Although safety is far less of an issue these days, I think most of us prefer “name brand” airlines to charter operators we’ve never heard of. It would seem like the airline would at least owe you 48 hours notice (if practicable) and an opportunity to cancel your rez without penalty for such a switch. But since this is so rare, I think gov’t action is unlikely.

  3. I just flew to EWR – LAS on a nice, upgraded CO 757. The power at my seat didn’t work and I didn’t take advantage of the live pay TV. On the return, they flew a non-upgraded CO 757. No power, no TV. It wasn’t any worse than my flight out, but it FELT worse – I had really hoped to spend $6 and watch football. But I wouldn’t think I was entitled to compensation on either flight.

  4. You know what they say, JB: You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle…

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