If pigs could fly

Ed Cone tells a story of an airline’s exquisite stupidity. He shows a picture of the jammed seats behind his jammed row 11 and the empty seats ahead and says:

What’s going on? An industry that has forgotten about customer service.

Almost nobody opted to pay $30 bucks extra to sit in “economy plus,” which promises a few inches of extra legroom. When it became clear that the flight would be packed six across from row 11 back while row after row sat empty in the front, people asked if they could move up. The flight attendants said no, you have to pay for those seats. Not very customer-friendly or situationally aware, but comprehensible.

So a guy asks if he could pay on the spot. Nope. People were laughing at the United’s cluelessness, but it wasn’t very friendly laughter.

When the drink cart came by I bought myself $5 worth of stress relief and asked the flight attendant (politely) why she could sell me a drink but not a seat. She looked at me like I had two heads and said they are in no way set up to take reservations, you have to do that with a service representative.

I started to say I didn’t want a reservation, I wanted to hand her $30 and move up one freaking row, but it felt like I was on the phone with Bangalore and couldn’t get a supervisor, so I just shut up and drank.

To recap: They don’t know how to allocate their seating categories, they aren’t going to let people spread out across a half-empty plane as a courtesy, and they turn down the chance to upsell on the spot, even though they do commerce in the aisles all the time.

What a stupid industry.

They’re so stupid they think their business strategy is to imprison passengers. They’re so stupid they don’t know how to take passengers’ money. They’re so stupid they don’t realize — or apparently care — how stupid they are. Too bad the all-powerful internet couldn’t give us all wings.

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  • It’s funny, but I see parallels for the software and technology industry. Ironic given that its even easier for us to take care of customers.

    More on my blog:




  • SteveSgt

    My simple solution: Boycott air travel. I’ve been doing so since the creation of TSA and DHS, and have had an overall better quality of life for my trouble.

    Yeah, Amtrak is slow sometimes, but in exchange I have room to move around and I do get modem-via-cell-phone connectivity in enough of the country that I can get plenty of work done on the train. Driving takes time, but then I get to catch-up on podcasts and conduct long catch-up phone calls. And, in each of these cases, my total carbon footprint is much lower.

  • richard

    While I agree with much of the sentiment of this story, I do think that there is a tendency for consumers (and particularly consumer/bloggers) to fail to even consider the alternative view.
    Let’s assume that the airline’s objective is profit maximizing over the long term.
    Of course, one possibility is that they are being stupid here by a) not taking the opportunity to improve their relationship with their customers at no cost; and/or b) up-sell on the go — thereby maximizing revenue.
    However, the alternative possibility is also at least credible, and possibly even persuasive. That is, that the airline wants to encourage people to book premium tickets ahead of time. And by making it clear that there will not be a second chance once on board (for free or for $30), they may increase the likelihood that people will pay in advance. It’s certainly possible that this is the right long-term profit maximizing strategy.
    People can disagree about whether their tactics here are more likely to get people to switch to another airline or pay in advance for a better seat next time — but to assert that this is just a one-sided debate is dis-ingenuous.
    The broader point is that whenever people assume that what big company X (particularly airlines, telecoms, etc.) do is just stupid, they should at least pause to wonder whether there may not be method to the madness. Most of these places are not run by idiots — and have had their tactics honed over years. Chances are that what seems stupid to you really makes sense for the business — it’s just not convenient for you!

  • This ordeal sort of reminded me of an observation I read yesterday on financial commentator Michael Panzner’s blog. He seems to see signs in the state of our infrastructure (including Air) suggesting that America could be falling behind as a global competitor. I wonder if there are non US airlines that CAN provide the upsell transaction that United could not even conceive of offering?

    I bet JetBlue could do it (my favorite airline, btw), but they already offer better legroom.

    panzner’s post is here, for those interested:


  • JetBlue offers extra legroom seats for $20, and I always buy them. Their web site shows you how busy the flight is and allows you do reserve your seat, move, and upgrade at the last minute. What’s the problem?

    United is probably prevented from having their stews sell seat upgrades by their union contract.

    People whine too much.

  • Howard Hughes

    I tend to agree with Richard: Chances are that what seems stupid to you really makes sense for the business — it’s just not convenient for you!

    And people do way too much whining.

  • Mark Pratt


    The answer to your question why they can’t sell you an economy plus seat is simple.
    Reservation systems aren’t controlled by Flight Attendents.

    Rather than complain about the airline — it seems everybody likes to blame airlines for *their* lack of planning — like when people arrive too late at the airport — miss their flight and blame the airline.

    What I find crazy is that people assume they are going to have lots of space *for free* and get mad when the plane is sold out. Then they want to move up for free and when they are told they can’t want to make up for their lack of planning by immediately buying what is effectively an upgrade.

    These days I feel sorry for the arlines because consumers are obviously expecting a cheap flight, lots of empty seats next to them, and service they aren’t willing to pay for.

    Wait till a few more airlines go bust and you find you can’t get flights, are paying at least 30% more for your airfare (which they arlines need right now to be profitable), and yes get less service.

  • o-shift

    The question is: Should the airlines allow customers to upgrade seats once airborne?

    They don’t and they shouldn’t.

    Here’s the scene. You are already 20-30 min into the flight and then the announcement: “Did you know United passengers can now upgrade their seats once airborne? Yes they can! Have your cash or credit card ready!”

    So some clueless passenger, or six clueless passengers, in row 36, 24, 18, 22, 32, 15, want to move from 10 to 30 rows up to first class or business class or whatever. No problem, right?

    These passengers are also going to want to remove their luggage from overhead bins, otherwise they are the last off the plane.

    Do you allow passengers to move luggage in-flight as well –put a wheel cart in the aisle? Is there anything wrong with that?

    And airlines aren’t kidding when they say somethings may have shifted in flight, so you want to minimize the need to open overhead bins.

    What if you are relocating passengers during sudden air turbulence? Is it smart airline policy to actually increase the amount of time people will not be using a seatbelt?

    And what about the other passengers with no plans to move? Do you bar those passengers from using the rest rooms while the musical chair seating upgrade is in progress?

    On top of this, the air crew attendants have to know, in the first instance, whether there is room in the overhead bin near the new seat. Lots of banging of air bins, which I’m sure will make the other passengers happy as well.

    And what about the passenger who paid extra and is now settled in, and must now unplug his Bose headphones, fold up the laptop and get up so tourist class idiot can improve his seat? Next time, he’ll tell corporate travel to book a flight on American. What is the actual cost of that $30 in-flight upgrade again?

    There are the backend issues as well. Should airlines accept credit cards inflight to handle the larger transactions?

    I fly about twice a month and most frequent fliers, stuck in an economy row (where I am), know when to keep their mouths shut. Experienced fliers don’t even move their seat back because they don’t want to screw up the laptop space of the person behind them. If there is ever a time to sit in stoic silence, it’s 30,000 feet up.

    The obnoxious customer is always right?

  • Bottom lines:
    1. You cant make a business by fucking your customers. Oh, you can. But it won’t last.
    2. You cant make a business by passing up money. Oh, you can, but that won’t last either, especially as fuel costs soar.
    3. You can find creative solutions to try to make customers happy and to make money. If you don’t, you’re fucked.

  • More bottom lines:
    4. Being convenient for me IS their business. If they don’t figure out how to make my convenience their business, they’re fucked.
    5. If you have to explain to me why I’m fucked, then it’s your rules and systems that are fucked. Fix them. I don’t want explanations. Explanations don’t fix anything.

  • The model existed before. First Class. Biz Class. Coach Class.
    Now coach class is being split. Will the naming convention keep pace so that truth eases the pain of feeling deceived and mistreated?
    Will your choices for seating (and pricing) soon include Upper Middle, Middle, Lower? Or maybe Second Class, Third Class, Stowage?
    You one day step on a scale that measurses height/weight, then spits out your ticket accordingly?

    Do I like it? No. Will the market sort it out? Yes, but painfully. Will I fly soon? Nope. The internet and wifi and videoconferencing has, in fact, given me wings.

    And just so there’s no confusion on my views. I’m a brand investor. I work in evaluating brands and brand potential.

    I don’t invest in airlines. That would be really stupid.

  • o-shift

    Jeff– But who is being screwed? You don’t have an idea about any of this? You’re an expert on flying. “Creative” solutions in the sky. Great idea. Fuck passenger safety. Stick to wordly observations about blogs.

  • o-shift

    Want to know something? If you friend had just politely asked if he could move up the attendant probably would have said no problem. Instead, he thought he would get material for a blog post by picking on a soft target, a customer service rep. Screw bloggers, Jeff.

  • tdc

    then why not offer the upsell at the gate or at check-in?

    surely they know the seating configuration an hour before the flight.

    a little software code here could go a long way in taking care of your “regular” customers, too.

  • Mark Pratt

    tdc — United usually does exactly that. It could have been that a United rep didn’t do it (unlikely) but regardless Jeff saying four letter words several times doesn’t change the reality that:

    1. he now knows United offers economy plus
    2. he hopefully knows that most airlines don’t provide this option
    3. United gives him a choice if he plans ahead and books this in advance
    4. o-shift explained very well why upgrades / people changing seats in flight are a less than stellar idea

  • Eric

    Gee, Jeff, so it’s the airline’s fault that clueless travelers can’t plan ahead? You want extra space – pay for it. No one got “fucked”…the passengers received what they paid for. Do you check into a hotel and then demand – from the bellhop – that you be upgraded to a suite? Or do you purchase a suite in advance or go BACK TO RESERVATIONS to upgrade to a suite?

  • tdc

    great, i have a 20 year old son who is flying united non-stop to nagoya japan.

    i’ll make certain to put an extra $30 in his lunchbox.

  • These airline defenders amaze me.
    I don’t need to be an expert in airline. I’m an expert in passenger. I am one.
    The airline, if it had half a brain, would figure out how to sell those seats at the gate. They’d make money. The passengers would be happy. Everybody would win.
    But, no, you have the fuck-the-passenger attitude that is exactly why everyone in the world hates airlines now.
    If you work for one, and I’ll bet you do, defenders, what you should be doing is listening and learning. Your customers are telling you how you can make more money and make them happy in one easy move.
    LISTEN. Stop arguing with your customers. That is no business strategy.
    (I wish you airline defenders would tell which airlines you work for so I can avoid them. I don’t like your attitudes.)

  • TDC,
    The onus is on the airline to figure this out. They could manage this at boarding. They an make money doing it!

  • Mark Pratt

    I don’t work for an airline (directly or indirectly) — but I do fly a lot for work.

    Let’s not beat this topic to death. Just want to point out that an airline offering you a choice (in this case United Economy plus) is hardly a good example of a “Fuck you” attitude.

    I certainly take advantage of Economy plus all the time and am happy they offer it.

    tdc, I’m not sure that economy plus to Nagoya Japan is $30 it could be $50 or higher. But on a 10+ hour journey surely worth the price.

  • Phil


    United does offer Economy Plus at the gate. As a Mileage Plus member, I would know. Do agents sell it every time? Perhaps not always, if the previous inbound flight was late, but yes, if they have time, they do sell Economy +. Additionally, if you check in online or via one of the Easy check-in kiosks that are available in any of the major United stations, you are asked if you would like to upgrade for a listed fee.

    So again, passengers are very much aware of the E+ option or at least they should be. Once on the plane, passengers can’t move around as they please because there are safety concerns as alluded to earlier. But I’m sure you’ll sign up as the industry’s defense attorney should a passenger break their neck when severe turbulence occurs while the passengers is “upgrading” mid flight.

    Perhaps those in the industry are not as dumb as you seem to think. Airlines have been listening to passengers by the way. The vast majority of passengers have asked for AND received ridiculously cheap flights and they could care less about service. When people become willing to pay more for better service (like me), you’ll start to see better service. In the meantime, the coach cabin will remain a commodity and service will be minimal, as passengers have voted with their feet for the past decade and chased the lowest price.

  • “If you friend had just politely asked if he could move up the attendant probably would have said no problem. Instead, he thought he would get material for a blog post by picking on a soft target, a customer service rep. Screw bloggers, Jeff.”

    Well, no. People did ask politely. A new flight attendant let two guys move up…and then her more experienced colleague came and moved them back to steerage. There was a longish conversation between a guy in a business suit in row 10 and the flight attendant about credit card readers, cash, and so on.

    The reaction of the passengers wasn’t hostile, or greedy, more like incredulous and mildly disgusted.

    I didn’t pick on the flight attendant, either in person or at my blog. I merely pointed out her powerlessness, and seeming cluelessness.

    I wasn’t looking for a blog post, I was looking to get home after a long day’s travel. What happened, happened, and I had a camera with me. People laughed and voiced their approval when I started taking pictures.

    That’s the way things work these days — we don’t have to look for material, just recognize it.

  • AC

    The upgrade to economy-plus on a trans-Pacific UA flight was $150 last week, and they did offer it at the gate on both legs of the trip, though I didn’t feel like spending $150 for five extra inches.

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  • bigyaz

    Those of you arguing with Jeff? Don’t bother. He doesn’t want to hear any opinions other than those of the sycophants who suck up to him. The rest of you just “don’t get it.” And he’ll keep arguing with you in the comments, making sure he gets the last word and impugning your motives (“you must work for the airlines”) if you have the temerity to disagree with him. After all, he’s so much smarter than everyone running every business out there, from newspapers to airlines.

  • I’m just a customer. That does stand for something.

  • tim

    Ed Cone, why not just buy the Economy Plus seat at check-in? Or was it just easier to bitch about it once you realized you were foolish not to buy it in the first place?

  • Tim, it didn’t seem like much of a value at check-in. But when we all got on the plane and saw that the back of the plane was packed six across and the front of the plane was virtually empty, it looked much more appealing. The value was not the few inches of extra legroom on which the seats were marketed, it was the space to spread out.

    Seems to me United could upsell at the gate, once it was clear that the spacing issue existed.

    As for upselling on the plane, people move, and get moved, from seat to seat all the time. Look at the pics at my site (linked in the post) — it looked absurd, especially given the fact that the premium seats are indistinguishable from the cheap ones.

    It wasn’t just me, by the way — I was more curious than anything, other people were actively trying to buy seats, and griping about the no-change policy.

  • Phil

    “Seems to me United could upsell at the gate, once it was clear that the spacing issue existed.”

    But United DOES upsell at the gate. Again, they are not as dumb as you are making them out to be. Do they upsell on the plane? No they do not. Perhaps they could, but do you want them to depart 20 minutes later so they can go passenger to passenger asking if they want to upgrade to E+? I didn’t think so. Once airborne, it’s simply not safe (I believe it is in fact illegal according to FAA) to allow passengers to upgrade mid-flight (could be wrong on the legality though but it is a legit safety issue – sudden turbulence and all).

    “Look at the pics at my site (linked in the post) — it looked absurd, especially given the fact that the premium seats are indistinguishable from the cheap ones.”

    This is also incorrect. The Econ+ seats have a different seat color and have a noticeably bigger pitch (distance between the rows). Btw, I wouldn’t consider Economy + as a “premium” product – it is just a nice perk for frequent fliers or those who upgrade to it. Please keep in mind, I am not trying to be snarky, but you have posted some factually incorrect info that I think deserved to be corrected.

  • o-shift

    This whole thing has been a big turn-off. I offered what I thought was a fair analysis of why it wouldn’t be a good idea to sell upgrades in-flight. That was it, and it resulted on a four letter laced counter attack that didn’t take issue with one point raised in my post or the post of others. I am not happy with my subsequent response to it, but I was, frankly, startled by tone.

    To your point Ed, that people do move in-flight — Yes, I have seen people swap out seats, move to empty rows and usually after a quiet request to a flight attendant. They are often most gracious and accommodating. But I can’t recall the last time I was on a plane that was as empty as the one your photograph shows. Being crammed three to a row is the norm, and as a passenger, I really don’t want to put up with people changing seats any more than cell phone use, if that ever comes to pass.

    I am not affiliated with the airlines (one of the sweeping claims Jeff).

    Your original post was essentially an outline of what you observed with some top-level assessments. I have no problem with that. It’s the springboard for commenters who will parse, dissect, layer on analysis and offer counter views and the like and enrich the discussion and make the blog worthwhile. If the original author, and I’ll say this generally, dismisses those arguments out-of-hand then there really isn’t much point it. Things get personalized only after doors are slammed in your face. You did not do that Ed, and I appreciate your restraint.

  • DeltaAteMyBalls

    I’m with you, Jeff. Recently, on a 6-hour flight from California, a “flight attendant” who was aghast that I had the temerity to bring my 2.5-year-old on a flight and decided let me know it. Although my daughter was asleep in her car seat for almost the entire flight and was quiet while awake, this “customer service rep” made it a point to wait hand and foot on everyone around me. However, she ignored my repeated requests for water even when my child began coughing from the dry air onboard. She even went so far as to walk up, turn off my call button and then walk away, smiling wryly.

    Five hours. No water. None. Not for a two year old.

    They can go straight to hell and burn — forever — no water…. Pinhead bastards.

    The name of the airline was Delta. Delta. D E L T A. Delta.

    BTW the no upsell argument is crap. I’ve been on trains in Europe and been upsold to a sleeper berth onboard enroute.

    All the apologists here have been brainwashed into thinking that we, the buying public don”t deserve customer service. Hell, that costs money.

    Well guess what, that’s the same argument that all customers care about is price. All companies care about is profit. So there. Invest is better customer service and people will pay a little extra for it. No. They will. Really. They did before deregulation.

    I would have gladly paid $30 extra to get my parched toddler some water.

    AND… What was that Jetblue “flight attendant” doing sitting on her ass? Shouldn’t she have been on her feet working to deny a thirsty infant some fucking water?!!!?

    Give me a break.

  • Martin Fogg

    I hate to seem stogy but are you people a bunch of teenage thug wannabes? Jeff, you’re leading the pack so you answer first. How old are you and what is your education level? Can you really not adequately express yourself without including simple-minded vulgarity in every sentence? Fuck this, fuck that. Are you just trying to ‘keep it real’, brutha? Is that what you’re doing? I guess Tarrantino and Mamet can justfy it because they’re writing dialogue, but what’s your excuse? Learn to express yourself with eloquence, lad.

  • Lad?
    How condescending can you get? And how old must you be to call a guy with a grey beard lad?
    I think the effort to cleanse the language is more dangerous than acts that dirty it. There’s nothing wrong with a word. It makes the point. Fucking your customers is exactly descriptive of what is going on in the industry. I stand by the word.

  • tammy gray

    Well, I’m bound for Beijing, China, with my daughter, for the Olympics. We leave this Friday. I received an email from United, offering for me to upgrade my seats (on an almost sold out plane) to plus seating. I was curious. I knew that my already assigned seats were in the back of the plane and I was already thinking how the seats were not looking too comfortable. I did some investigating and found this blog. After reading all of these posts, I decided to invest in the upgrade. It’s a 13 hour flight, and judging by all of your experiences, and blogs, I hope it proves to be worth it. My daughter is 5’9 and I am 5’4. Five inches may not seem like a lot too you, but to me, well… the difference…. is ….um….. priceless.

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