Why Air Canada’s “Pay Extra for Better Seats” plan has merit

This blog hasn’t always been uncritical of Air Canada, having noted last April that the nation’s largest airline seemed to be gearing up for a battle within its own ranks.

In July, I also suggested that Air Canada needed to make better use of its fleet in order to get back to profitability after narrowly avoiding a second bankruptcy earlier this year.

However, I’ve also noted some positive developments.

In May, I suggested that those who feel hard done by by Canada’s airlines look at passenger horror stories from around the world to get a sense of how air travel in Canada is still a relatively civilized affair.

Three days later, it was also noted that international air travel has never been more affordable.

It’s time once again to note a positive development that is taking shape in the industry.

Air Canada has announced a new option that will allow passengers to pay extra to pre-book some of the best seats on the airplane, starting from $14 per segment.

Not surprisingly, there has been criticism that this represents another attempt to nickel-and-dime the poor passenger.

I’m going to go out on a limb, however, and praise the move.

Since the advent of the frequent flyer program in the early ’80s, traditional airlines generally haven’t made the best seats in the house equally available to all. The more desirable seats at the front of the cabin were quietly set aside for members of each airline’s frequent flyer program, particularly those with “elite” standing, and for full-fare passengers.

Only once the rest of the seats at the back were spoken for would they consider opening these more desirable seats to the low-fare, non-card-holding riff-raff.

It was a perk that helped keep business travelers coming back to an airline, even if they never really had much love for that carrier.

Over the years, the traditional airlines’ treatment of passengers came to resemble a hierarchy. If you were lucky enough to be counted among the aristocrats by the airline’s computers, you were given privileges such as better seats, access to invitation-only airline lounges and an invitation to board the flight first. (Some airlines even made a point of saying out loud that these perks were for “elite passengers only”.)

If you were in the airline’s middle class — a frequent flyer point collector without elite status or a customer who had bought a ticket between seat sales — you might be lucky enough to get a mid-cabin seat and perhaps to have your slightly-too-heavy suitcase or bit-too-large carry-on overlooked.

If you fit into none of these categories, you would be flagged by the airline’s computers as a mere peasant who probably deserved your fate of sitting in a middle seat way back in row 24. Even the willingness to pay a little more money wouldn’t help you move up in the airline passenger hierarchy.

By creating this hierarchy, the airlines not only failed to create profits: they ignored the fact that human beings hate hierarchy.

Human beings want to be made to feel important. They want control of their destiny. They yearn for equality. They seethe with anger anytime anyone even implies that some other group is superior to them, or that they should “know their place”.

This hatred of hierarchy is the reason why egalitarian societies like Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, Australia and New Zealand remain attractive places to live and eventually recover from their problems, while hierarchical societies like France, Belgium, Russia, India and Japan continue to either lose their best and their brightest to emigration or seem to be permanently unable to get the best out of their people.

Hatred of hierarchy is also the reason why even the bureaucrats abhor the bureaucracy, whether these be government bureaucracies or corporate bureaucracies.

Thus, by creating a hierarchy of passengers, the traditional airlines came to be hated by their passengers, even by frequent flyers who came to feel that they were prisoners of their point balances.

When new airlines came along with more egalitarian ideas, like the U.S.A.’s Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, Canada’s WestJet and Britain’s EasyJet, travelers flocked to them in large numbers.*

With lower costs than traditional airlines, happier employees and an even more loyal customer base, these egalitarian airlines achieved a level of profitability that eluded traditional airlines. In an industry where it’s taken for granted that not every year will be profitable, Southwest for example has remarkably posted a year-end profit every single year since 1973.

By allowing passengers to pay for perks like better seats and lounge access, Air Canada is starting to break down some of the “class barriers” between passengers and to adopt a more egalitarian culture.

There’s still a long way to go. Seniority is still all-important among many Air Canada employees — a form of hierarchy itself that allows senior crew members to be at home with their families on Christmas Eve while the juniors are stuck in a hotel room 800 miles from home.

Air Canada’s membership in the Star Alliance also requires it to honour some of the hierarchical practices of its partner airlines, even industry bums like United Airlines, such as by giving preferential treatment to other airlines’ “elite” passengers.

It’s a positive step forward, however, by an airline that has made more effort than most other traditional carriers to rehabilitate its reputation. For that, Air Canada deserved credit.

* – Admittedly, the industry’s failures outnumber its success stories. But it’s still no accident that the world’s most profitable airlines typically fall into one of two categories: a.) Long-haul carriers like Singapore Airlines that can both command a premium from business travelers and keep each aircraft in the air for an average of 12-16 hours per day; b.) Low-cost, egalitarian short- and medium-haul carriers like Southwest and WestJet that also keep each aircraft in the air an average of about 12 hours per day.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to Why Air Canada’s “Pay Extra for Better Seats” plan has merit

  1. Fat Arse says:

    Hey, V7,

    Good post.

    re: “while heirarchical societies like France, … continue to either lose their best and their brightest to emigration or seem to be permanently unable to get the best out of their people.”

    More info please. France? Not saying you are wrong, but is France really in the same category as the other countries mentioned? Interesting.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Good point, FA. I was thinking more about culture (e.g., Prof. Geert Hofstede’s work and commonly accepted rules about etiquette in everyday life) than about economic well-being and rule of law (where there are huge differences between France/Belgium/Japan and Russia/India).

  3. Cynthia Loan says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience, it’s very useful for me

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