The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
Why We Hate Airlines and Love Diet Coke
September 8, 1997 -- Sometimes you learn the lessons of frequent flying in the oddest places. Like a convenience store by the side of any road in America.

Running dry the other day, I pulled my old convertible into the parking lot of a store and went in for a liter of Diet Coke. I picked up a bottle, looked at the $1.39 price tag, and shrugged my shoulders. On the way to the register, however, I came across a display of 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke. The price: 87 cents each.

Now I didn't really want two liters of Diet Coke, but why pay 52 cents more for the one-liter bottle? So I paid my 87 cents and headed back to my car. I drank about half the bottle, put on the cap, then bounced the bottle off the back rim and into the trash can.

You'll be amazed by what happened next.

The Diet Coke police did not leap from behind the bushes, fish the bottle out of the trash can, and insist I drink all two liters. They did not huffily demand that I pay the 52-cent difference between the 2-liter bottle and the one-liter bottle because I only drank one liter. They did not threaten never to sell me Diet Coke again. And they did not go inside the convenience store and demand that the proprietor quiz future 2-liter Diet Coke buyers about their intentions.

Giddy with the power of actually doing what I wished with a product I had purchased, I rushed home to call some airline executives and tell them my Diet Coke parable. Why, I asked them all, could I buy whatever size bottle of Diet Coke I wanted and consume it in any manner I chose, but it was "wrong" for me to buy "hidden-city" or "back-to-back" airline tickets?

After hemming and hawing--and some creative trash-talking about my suggestion that I had canned my Diet Coke bottle after three spectacular shake-and-bake moves--all the airline executives could say was that hidden-city tickets and back-to-back ticketing was against their rules and cost them money. It doesn't matter what a customer could do to save money when they purchased Diet Coke, they said. Don't you dare be a smart consumer when it came to airline tickets, they warned.

Now in case you don't know about hidden-city and back-to-back tickets, let me assure you they are the frequent-flying equivalent of buying a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke because it is cheaper than a one-liter bottle.

In the hidden-city gambit, a business traveler buys a ticket to a city that is cheaper than the cost of a ticket to his actual destination, then gets off the plane when the flight stops where he really wants to go. One example: a business-class ticket from New York to Tokyo now costs $2,624 one way. But for reasons known only to the same gods who price a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke less than a one-liter bottle, a business-class ticket on New York-Tokyo-Hong Kong routings costs as little as $2,012 one-way. Smart frequent flyers naturally buy the New York-Hong Kong ticket, get off at the "hidden" city of Tokyo, and save $600.

The back-to-back scenario allows you to circumvent the dreaded Saturday-stay restriction. Instead of buying one rapacious roundtrip ticket that does not include a Saturday stay, travelers buy two cheaper roundtrip tickets that include Saturday stays, and then use only the first segment of each roundtrip. One example: even if you know two weeks in advance that you must fly between Dallas and Los Angeles, you will pay $1,560 for a roundtrip coach ticket without a Saturday-night stay. Two tickets with Saturday stays--a Dallas-Los Angeles roundtrip that begins when you need to fly to Los Angeles and a Los Angeles-Dallas roundtrip that starts when you need to fly home--cost a total of just $1,156. Savings: $400.

Both ticketing practices are the moral and legal equivalent of buying a cheaper bottle of 2-liter Diet Coke when you only want to drink one liter. But unlike the mighty--and lavishly profitable--Coca-Cola Company, the airlines scream bloody murder if you buy hidden-city or back-to-back tickets.

If the ticket police find you booking one of these fares, they'll cancel your reservations. If they discover you en route, they'll demand you pay the difference between your ticket and the higher-priced fare. They will threaten to void your frequent-flyer account. The ticket police will even attack you through your travel agent by sending a "debit memo" to your agent for any extra fare they decide you should have paid.

As business people, we all know that it is irrational for 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke to sell for less than a one-liter bottle. We all know that it is irrational for a flight to Hong Kong via Tokyo to cost less than a flight to Tokyo. But that is the competitive reality of the marketplace.

Coca-Cola lives with it, profits handsomely by it, and doesn't blame its consumers for making smart purchasing decisions. The airlines jump ugly and bully us.

Which is probably why we love Diet Coke and hate the airlines.

This column is Copyright 1997 by Joe Brancatelli. is Copyright 2001-2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.