Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"Calculated Misery"

In the wake of the moral, economic, and public relations disaster that resulted from the beating and forcible removal of a paying customer from a United Airlines flight last week, there's been a lot of discussion of exactly why such a monstrous thing could happen. Many reasons have been put forward, ranging from the morality of capitalism to devaluation of individual rights and dignity in a me-first culture. Another interesting explanation comes in this article by Alex Abad-Santos, writing in Vox - “Calculated Misery”: How Airlines Profit from Your Miserable Flying Experience.

The bottom line is this: because we are always seeking to pay the lowest price for the goods and services we buy,

"... (the) airlines ... use “calculated misery” to make their baseline products and services so low-quality and unpleasant that lots of people will be willing to pay more to avoid them."

Think of all the things about flying that used to be included in the cost of your ticket: your luggage, the seat of your choice (when it was available), snacks (on short flights) or meals (on longer ones), and enough leg room that your knees didn't prevent you from wearing a headset. Now, of course, you may pay a relatively low price for your ticket, but you are nickel-and-dimed to death for all the things that used to be included. The article points out that although the calculated misery model is used to some degree in other businesses (you pay extra for bacon and cheese on your basic hamburger, for instance), the airlines have taken it to new heights* (when you go into a restaurant, you don't pay extra for all the members of your family to sit together at the same table).

If, to get the lowest possible fare, you are willing to be miserable for the length of a flight, jammed into a middle seat with no legroom and hoping you can board early enough to put your too-large "carry-on" bag into an overhead bin before they're all full, that's fine. But the airlines are working hard to make sure that the level of misery you are willing to accept will be exceeded by a margin large enough that you'll swallow all the extra fees for the things that used to be included.

The calculated misery model may be the wave of the future as businesses intent on maximizing profits try to attract customers who have less and less disposable income ... or even jobs. And the ability and willingness to pay for improved levels of service will be a new marker of class distinction in society.

And who knows how far it will go? As far back as 1997, the satirical online newspaper The Onion ran this story: U.S. Offers PlatinumPlus Preferred Citizenship:

"By becoming a PlatinumPlus citizen, you join an exclusive club of elite Americans ... And as part of that club, you'll be eligible for many special benefits, including tax breaks, excusal from jury duty, and vacations at special PlatinumPlus Caribbean resorts, which are off-limits to ordinary, EconoBudget citizenry. It's our way of saying thank you to our best customers ... And, of course, there are never any annual fees ... PlatinumPlus citizens—selected according to a number of demographic factors, including age, race and socio-economic status—will enjoy a wide variety of other benefits, including immunity from speeding tickets; separate, no-wait lines at over 50,000 post-office locations nationwide; and wider, more comfortable window seating ... After just one year in the club, members can also begin earning extra votes for elections. 'Wouldn't you like to earn up to five bonus votes for the next presidential election?' said U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker (R-MS), a co-sponsor of the measure. 'With your new PlatinumPlus citizenship, you can.' According to Wicker, those at the highest level of the new program, or "Diamond Club" citizens, will enjoy additional rewards, including a pass good for acquittal from one crime (misdemeanor or felony), a no-interest credit line of up to $500,000 and, for able-bodied male PlatinumPlus members between ages 18 and 35, excusal from the draft should a foreign war arise."

I can see the Trump administration jumping on this like a hobo on a hot ham sandwich.

So ... are you okay with calculated misery as a way of keeping prices down? Are you okay with the PlatinumPlus Preferred Citizenship that - in many ways - is available to the top 1% today? If so, I'm happy for you.

But, whiner that I am, I'd be happier if we could just go back to the quaint concept of equality of opportunity as the basis for getting that aisle seat. Or a tax break.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Sorry.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

The term "calculated misery" does cause us to re-think how airlines treat us. Unfortunately, I'm in the plebeian travel class: economy.

I need the saving, plain and simple.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer said...

I'm cynical enough to see Platinum Plus citizenship as a future development.

Mike said...

“Calculated misery” is why I drove from St. Louis to DC last time.

bakku-shan said...

This Platinum Plus citizenship might require some re-tooling of the Constitution.

Anonymous said...

United Airways may have stepped over the line when it came to calculated misery.

allenwoodhaven said...

Calculated Misery. What an awful concept, let alone practice!

Big Sky Heidi said...

Calculated misery is such an apt term!