Budget airlines and the spirit of aggressive capitalism

Everywhere, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed B-school graduates, their empathy stripped out of them like extra fittings on an old airliner, are vying to make life more and more vile.

By Ruchir Joshi
  • Published 13.09.18
  • a few seconds read
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Photo by Markus Spiske / Flickr

I just love aggressive capitalism, especially in the area of its interaction with human consumers. Even as I suffer at its cruel money-grubbing hands, I have to admire the chutzpah, the brio, the naked effrontery, the sheer, shameless, regular shoving of one of its many hydra hands into my wallet and my bank account.

Taking a long international flight, I, like many other people of shaky middle-age, crave for and desire an aisle seat on the aircraft. When I try and check in a couple of days before the flight, the airline (not Air India but a big, Indian private carrier) website informs me that I can choose my own seat. Hooray, fantastic, I click on the seat chart looking for an available seat number on the aisle. Hmm. All the aisle seats seem to be blocked from my mouse's eager nibbling. How is this possible? Upon further examination, it becomes clear that I can, indeed, choose an aisle seat but I have to pay for the pleasure - something just south of Rs 2,000. More digital digging reveals that I can gamble. I can take a chance that my own creaky airframe will find an aisle seat a few hours before take-off or that it will be unhappily ensconced in a middle seat for nine and a half hours. Two thousand bucks isn't that much, especially if you look at one of the ugly new notes let loose by the Mint, but I am parsimonious by nature, reluctant to pay for what should be mine by right, free of charge (as I see it), and so I wait. Like a bird of prey, I hover over the computer as the window opens for free-seat selection at the appointed time, which is in the early hours of the morning. Many of those previously blocked seats are actually free and bingo I find the seat I need. I'm happy, my two grand still in my pocket so to speak, but the tension has taken its toll. I realize the airline knows me well, or knows well people like me, and is counting on the fact that if they create that sliver of doubt outside our off-stump we will push forward our debit or credit card and curtain rail it to snick money into the waiting maw of the airline's bank account.

If I think the Indian airline is bad, I just have to wait a couple of months before I fly a notorious budget airline from London to Berlin. These guys are the real McCoy of legitimized swindling. With these cowboys, the cheap initial ticket price is like a bait on a hook, with you, naturally, being the trembling fish. Trying to check in, you rapidly realize you are actually in one of those video-games, one of those battle games where you are constantly walking on a minefield and where it's only a matter of time before (and not if) you get blown up. Again it's a gamble, but then so is any war. Here, the digital mine could take your foot off or your whole leg or delink you from below your waist, except it's your very real money that will bleed out of the rupture. Do you want to carry an extra item of luggage on board? If yes, you have to pay some extortionate pounds. No? Then, do you want to check in your bag? If yes, then you have to pay. If you don't pay, you get to trundle the suitcase till you reach the door of the aircraft after which you still have to check it in and they take it away. Then they make you wait at the arrival end while they make sure to first unload the bags of the people who've paid to check-in their suitcases and then leave a gap of a few minutes before third-class penny-pinchers like you get to reclaim your bag.

Do these cowboys also make you pay to choose your seat? You bet they do. In fact, unlike the simpleton Indian carrier's flat 2000 bucks, here there is a whole price hierarchy of seats. As your mouse hovers over the seat icons, you can see that some cost 3.50 GBP, others 5 GBP, while some really fancy ones, where you can actually unfold your legs, will hurt you for up to 8 or even 10 GBP. If you hesitate to choose and pay up, within a few minutes the prices for the same seats can go up, a bit like Uber and Ola's surge pricing. Then there are the ancillary temptations of travel insurance, of hotel booking, and of reserving plates of the terrible food. Then there is, of course, the bottled water. Settling into my seat, I ask for some plain water and the cabin-crew person says to me, "Erm, sir, we have for 3 Euros, or 2.80 GBP, a bottle of water which I can only sell you after take-off." Before I can say anything, she adds, "In our toilets we only have hot water."

Now, this you have to admire. This level of attention to detail is comparable to Nainsukh of Guler painting the droplets of fresh rain on the wing of a bird with a brush made from squirrel eyelashes, or Satyajit Ray delicately tweaking the pallu of his actor's sari just so, so that it bounces a whisker of light up into one side of her jaw. I mean, who does this? What kind of person thinks of this? This is surely some legendary Karla or George Smiley of the budget airline world who says 'Right, we need to make more profit on the water. What are those b*****d passengers doing to avoid buying our water? Oh, okay, let's make sure they only get hot, ill-tasting water in the loos.' When you think about it, it costs money to heat the bathroom water on aeroplanes. Here is someone who has made the calculation that the cost of supplying only hot water in the toilets is far outstripped by the profit in increased on-board sales of over-priced bottled water.

One comes away with the strong feeling that this is only the beginning. One intra-Europe budget airline had made up its mind to henceforth start charging passengers for the baggage being checked in at the door of the aircraft; various factors have made it back down for the time being, but no doubt, once seeded, the idea will bear some kind of fruition somewhere. Elsewhere, plans are afoot to see if passengers can be made to half-stand in stirrups, saving space and squeezing in more bodies for short flights. There is also talk - I kid you not - of passengers being charged to use the toilet during flights.

Let's not imagine that this whole 'philosophy' is confined to the airline sector. Everywhere, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates from business schools, their humanity, empathy and morality stripped out of them like unnecessary extra fittings on an old, rented airliner, are vying with one another to make life more and more vile for the sheep-like consumer. The model of business is now, ever more than before, a confrontationist model, with each company putting on a con man's bravado: 'You as a customer are guilty of availing of our initial low charges and we will punish you for this misdemeanour to the maximum we can. It's up to you to prove your 'innocence'. Until you manage we will squeeze you for everything you've got.'

Look around you and see. Does any of this ring a bell vis-à-vis your mobile phone company? Are you getting short-changed by your bank? Is your insurance company pushing you out of the plane without a parachute? Or is it the airline, in fact, that's squeezing you like a juicer? If the answer to any of the above is yes, then the solution is to get aggressive but with all the cleverness at your disposal, proactively and with alacrity, and to share your results, whether successful or failed, as widely as possible.