By Joe Brancatelli
February 7, 2008 -- This has always been the frequent flyer's equivalent of the chicken-or-the-egg riddle: Do big airlines give $298 leisure travelers $998 worth of service or do $998 full-fare business travelers receive $298 worth of service?

During the first days of deregulation, in the early 1980s, the airlines could straight-facedly claim that $298 leisure travelers received all of the perks and benefits accorded to the $998 business traveler.

In recent years, of course, that claim wouldn't pass the laugh test and not even today's clueless crop of airline executive would dare make the suggestion. It is now taken as gospel that everyone gets $298 worth of service and what you pay--$198, $498, $698, $998 or $1,298--is between you, your gods, your fare-scrapping software, your travel agent and the yield-management computers.

But now we've entered a dangerous new phase of Big Six service philosophy. I suggest to you that today business travelers are getting $298 worth of service and leisure travelers are beginning to get $98 worth of service for their $298 fare.

I refer, of course, to a phalanx of seemingly unrelated moves that the airlines have made in recent years to reduce the service provided to our leisure-travel seatmates. Despite all the sales you see advertised, the lowest leisure fares are now available only if you book directly with an airline's proprietary Web site. Low-fare tickets on some carriers no longer generate full frequent flyer mileage or elite credit. After a never-ending series of rules fiddles, airlines now slap huge change fees--$100 domestically and $400 internationally--on the cheaper-priced seats, which are already nonrefundable and were briefly in the use-it-or-lose-it category. Some low-fare tickets no longer qualify for advance seat assignments. Other low-fare tickets no longer qualify for an upgrade, even if you want to use miles or make a cash co-pay.

And this week, United Airlines dropped another big shoe: Nonrefundable domestic fares purchased by non-elite members of the Mileage Plus program no longer come with the privilege of two free checked bags. After May 5, those poor schleps will have to pay $25 if they want to check a second bag. And United, always the first with the worst, will also impose a $100 penalty if your bag is oversized or overweight.

To make matters worse, United and the other carriers have brazenly suggested that these leisure-fare restrictions are an enhancement of our perks. The limited distribution of cheap seats is only fair given how much more business flyers pay, they say. When Air Canada eliminated advance seat assignments for low-fare seats four years ago, one of its executive apologists claimed full-fare travelers would now "see the value that they're purchasing relative to other price points."

And when it announced its new baggage policy on Monday, United's ultra-gauche executives and fumble-mouthed spokesapologists made a similar claim: Cutting benefits for low-fare flyers and non-elite frequent flyers was somehow an enhancement of the perks that high-fare, elite travelers receive.

Worst of all, some business travelers, desperate for any sign of preferential treatment from the carriers that overcharge and abuse them, are actually buying into the airlines' less-for-them-is-more-for-you spin.

"I pay more, so it's only fair that I get more," one JoeSentMe member said to me in an E-mail on Tuesday evening.

Much as I agree with the sentiment, however, I feel compelled to ask the brutally obvious question: How does taking away another passenger's privileges translate into the airlines recognizing our superior financial worth as frequent flyers?

When the airlines take away a leisure traveler's benefits that doesn't mean a business traveler is getting more. Look carefully, fellow full-fare flyers: You don't get lower fares because the airlines now offer their cheapest seats only on their own Web sites. You didn't save anything when the airlines upped the ticket-rewrite fee. No matter the tortured logic of the Air Canada buffoon, you won't get any new benefit because some airlines now charge low-fare flyers for a seat assignment.

And nothing in United's announcement on Monday is good news for you, even if you are an elite Mileage Plus flyer. Full-fare and elite travelers got no new benefits. In point of actual fact, United's top-line change--a second-bag fee for Joe LeisureFlyer--neatly deflected attention from the fact that United doubled the overweight/oversize baggage fee imposed on all travelers.

Unless you're a Zen master--and, I admit, frequent flying has driven us all to Zen-like forbearance--you cannot reasonably equate taking away from others to mean that you are receiving more.

At the beginning of deregulation, when the airlines could credibly argue that $298 customers were receiving $998 worth of service, all travelers received: full refundability of tickets; advance-boarding passes; no advance-purchase rules or Saturday stays; no ticket-rewrite charges; the ability to choose the best seats available; the freedom to buy tickets from any retail channel; and the right to check two 70-pound bags as part of the fare.

Over the years, the big airlines have forced leisure travelers (and many price-conscious frequent flyers) to accept nonrefundable tickets; advance-purchase and Saturday-stay restrictions; steadily escalating rewrite fees; fees for the right to stand by for another flight; fees for curbside check-in; pay-for-the-privilege seat-selection; and dramatically reduced free luggage allowances.

For the privilege of flying for $298, leisure travelers now have given up almost everything save their seat and their seat belt. (Skybus, the year-old start-up, and Spirit Airlines, now run by the so-called Killer Bs who almost destroyed US Airways, have totally unbundled their fares, of course, so drop the "almost" when you refer to them.)

How can the big airlines credibly claim that this endless parade of lost benefits on low-fare tickets somehow makes our lives as frequent flyers better? They can't--and you shouldn't let them.

The fact that leisure travelers now get $98 worth of service for their $298 ticket doesn't change the fact that we're still getting $298 worth of service for our $998 fares.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.