The Brancatelli File



March 16, 2006 -- You shouldn't be shocked that a Big Six airline is trying to charge for "choice" seat assignments in coach. In the pantheon of as-yet untried dumb ideas that will further complicate the Byzantine fare structure and drive the Big Six closer to irrelevance, this bonehead play was inevitable.

You shouldn't be surprised that the first Big Six carrier to try charging for a "choice" coach seat assignment is Northwest Airlines. Historically the first with the very worst, it was pre-ordained that Northwest would try to separate the crap from the chaff and suggest you should pay more for the merely crappy.

And you shouldn't be perplexed that there's a cadre of quotable talking-head "experts" who suggest that Northwest's pay-to-sit plan might be a good idea. These idiots never miss a chance to defend conventional airline wisdom, which has led to five Big Six bankruptcies and tens of billions of dollars in losses since 9/11.

No, my friends, there is only one thing notable about Northwest's decision to charge $15 a pop for what it has labeled Coach Choice seats: It is unabashedly aimed at ripping off the travelers who show Northwest Airlines the most loyalty, generate the most revenue and usually pay the highest fares.

Instead of going after its least loyal, most ephemeral and least-profitable flyers--a move Air Canada made last year when it added a seat-assignment fee on its cheapest class of fares--Northwest Airlines has come after its best customers. It has said in no uncertain terms that the frequent flyers who have done the most to keep Northwest in the air now should pony up again if they have any hope of being even slightly less uncomfortable when they fly this mildewed skeleton of an airline.

If you haven't done more than hear about Northwest's "test" of Coach Choice, click here to do a little homework on it. As a businessperson, you will be stunned at the monumental stupidity of the program and the callous disregard of the airline's most important customers. And if you want to feel the outrage of Northwest's best customers, surf to and check out the WorldPerks message board. As a businessperson, you'll be taken aback at the vitriol that Northwest' best customers are now directing at their most important air-travel supplier.

The conceptual and operational flaws of Coach Choice are obvious from a mile away. I'd say it's a plan only an airline executive could love, but that's not really fair. Even most of the airline executives I talked to after Northwest unleashed this bomb on Tuesday thought it was a colossal disaster. They're not against charging you for boarding passes or prime seat assignments, you understand, they just can't believe that Northwest could have cooked up a program this lame.

Coach Choice is based on a gruesome calculation: Take away as many as ten of the least uncomfortable coach chairs on selected Northwest flights and deprive WorldPerks elite customers of that inventory when they first book passage. Then, 72 hours before departure, turn around and sell those same seats to those same customers at a $15 premium.

"Now I understand why some of our customers believe that we think they are stupid," a marketing executive at one of Northwest's Big Six competitors told me today. "We're looking at charging for seat assignments, too, but Northwest's execution is really ugly. It's guaranteed to bring in the least revenue and cause the most disaffection."

Besides the general offensiveness of the Coach Choice plan, Northwest has also thrown in some truly despicable twists:
     + The $15 charge is per flight segment, not per trip. Since a huge number of Northwest itineraries are routed through its hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis, we're actually talking about a $60 roundtrip surcharge.
     + Full-fare and walk-up coach fares do not qualify for a fee waiver if the traveler wants one of the Coach Choice seats. Worse, an early booker on an ultra-cheap fare can score a prime seat for just $15 more, while a full-fare customer, who may have paid three or four times more than the early booker, gets no seating preference.
     + If Coach Choice is even modestly successful, last-minute, full-fare flyers, who pay the most, will be forced into inferior seats--probably middle seats--on crowded flights.
     + Elite customers who pay for a Coach Choice seat do not get a refund should they qualify for an at-the-gate upgrade to first class. Depending on how you look at it, that's either a blatant fare increase to qualify for an upgrade or a new fee on a "free upgrade."
     + If Northwest screws up and doesn't provide the Coach Choice seat for which a flyer paid, it's the flyer's responsibility to track down the refund. It won't be issued automatically.

And think about the in-flight, operational nightmares involved with a program like this. (It's obvious Northwest didn't.) Here are just three scenarios that pop immediately to mind:
     + Will flight attendants be required to police the seats? If Coach Choice seats don't sell out, there will obviously be a rush for them after the doors close. Will flight attendants be required to eject travelers who've moved from the "non-choice" seats?
     + What happens when a traveler who pays for a Coach Choice seat discovers that the overhead bin above his supposedly choice seat has been filled with luggage stowed by a non-choice seat customer? After paying the premium, will the "choice" customer be the one forced to gate-check a carry-on bag?
     + What happens when a Coach Choice flyer is also a very late-arriving passenger and another traveler has been reassigned to that supposedly choice seat?

As always with these misbegotten Big Six idiocies, the bottom line is the bottom line. This program is so badly designed, so poorly conceived and so complicated that it will invariably cost Northwest Airlines more money to administer than it could ever hope to generate in fees. And who knows how many once-loyal Northwest Airlines customers will decide that Coach Choice is the last straw and take their fare dollars to Delta or Continental, where their WorldPerks status is also recognized?

Of course, the truth must be told: Coach travel on the Big Six, and especially Northwest, is abominable. Some of our fellow travelers will undoubtedly cough up $15 a segment for a Coach Choice seat and rationalize it by pleading the need to escape from the even more hellish conditions of a non-choice coach seat.

Don't hate the frequent flyers who pay. Pity them. They are the ones who, because of route-network realities or corporate policy, simply have no choice but to fly Northwest Airlines.

And that's a fate I don't wish even on the fools who invented Coach Choice.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.