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Airline rules defy logic

Wayne Curtis begins his “World of Wonders” blog with an anecdote in which a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of aeronautics proves that commercial air travel is a physical impossibility.

That was in the 1930s, and the airlines have now been violating the laws of physics—or at least the dictates of common sense—for 70 years. In flagrant disregard of Mother Nature’s rules, large U.S. carriers like American operate some 4,000 flights every day. And the jets themselves have grown to gargantuan proportions—the new Airbus 380 is capable of hefting as many as 853 passengers on two decks.

It’s not only in the air that airlines have thumbed their noses at the conventions that normally circumscribe natural and human behavior. As Curtis points out, “Many economic laws don’t apply, either: A four-day car rental is more than a seven-day rental. A one-way trip is more than a round trip. A 45-minute flight to a small airport in the next state costs more than flying clear across the country.”

Where the airlines’ behavior really defies credibility, in Curtis’s view, is with their rules governing changes in travel plans, and the fees associated with such changes.

Tickets, the airlines have decreed, cannot be sold or given away once they’ve been issued. (Never mind that just about any other imaginable good or service, once purchased, is the buyer’s to do with as he chooses.) And should the ticket buyer need to change the details of his trip, the airline will charge a change fee, typically $100, for all but the most expensive fare types.

The logic? From the standpoint of fairness and rationality, there is none. But it makes perfect economic sense from the perspective of the airlines’ bottom lines. As Curtis notes, “Airlines make tidy millions on those $100 change requests.”

If the airlines bother to wonder why theirs is among the most despised and distrusted industries, part of the answer is certainly to be found in those rules and restrictions, so many of which are both illogical and consumer-unfriendly.

Which suggests a solution to the airlines’ image problem: Better align the logic of their policies and fees with consumers’ common-sense notions of fairness and decency. You may be able to pull a fast one on Mother Nature and keep those winged behemoths aloft, but the traveling public isn’t so gullible. Or so forgiving.

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