It is helpful in marketing, or in being victimized by marketing, to understand that anything that is “free” is essentially worthless. The word has no intrinsic meaning. We just concluded a trip to Belize and used Southwest Airlines for the journey. More about that later.
Two years ago we went to Long Island for a family get-together, and we had accumulated over the years a pile of airline miles, something given us for “free” for using certain credit cards and flying on certain airlines. By use of a Capital One credit card, we had over (a long period of) time accumulated over 100,000 miles, so I thought it a good time to cash them in and save a few bucks.
When it was over, I felt like I had walked out of a casino having been outwitted by a poker machine. Yes, Capital One was willing to get us there, but would not give us a decent flight back. They had us flying and two and three in the morning with one or more layovers even as direct flights to Denver abound. So I set out to work my way around them. I would book only one way passage, and then separately book one-way passage home. They saw me coming. Not only was one-way passage home blocked by the same lousy flights, but the price had doubled from 25,000 to 50,000 miles both ways. There was a conscious effort on the Capital One side of the deal to prevent us from using those miles.
In the end I simply cashed in the miles, and we got a check for $500 … the true value of 100,000 miles, and the reason why Capital One worked so tirelessly to prevent us from using them to attain something of real value, two non-stop round trip tickets.
But wait! $500 is something! We did indeed get something for free. Right? I suppose so, but only in the sense that moving money from right pocket to left and dropping some in the process is “free.” Credit cards do not pay benefits. Those come from merchant fees. The greater the benefit, the higher the fee. Merchants only allow this practice if they are getting it back in higher prices. In essence the whole of credit card “benefits” is an illusion. Convenient? Yes. But consumers pay for everything down to the embedded magnetic code in the stripe.
Nothing is free, there is no comparative benefit to any consumer decision that is not reflected in the price. A few years back we were booking a trip to Costa Rica with friends, and the price per ticket initially came up $700 using United Airlines. I told my wife that no matter where she turned, some how, some way, the price would be $700. She and our friend invested time and energy to prove me wrong (usually not that hard), and ended up booking with Spirit Airlines, the most despised in the business. But the savings were substantial … they thought … until they learned that there were two layovers, and for each one Spirit charged a baggage fee, and in the end the price of a ticket was … $700. Having booked and feeling scammed, they demanded and got a refund and we flew United, having only one layover.
It’s a game! Sociopaths love gaming! Behind every marketplace venture, whether we are aware or not, we are gaming with sociopaths. They snicker and chuckle and laugh at us as we imagine we are dealing with authentic people. They love springing the trap.
That brings me to Southwest Airlines, a different kind of company, one that has gone to great lengths using ad agencies and public relations to convince us that their sociopaths are kinder, gentler than the others’. Southwest has several policies that on the surface seem different. For one, upon boarding and deboarding, they do stand-up comedy. For real. Some if it is even funny, as when arriving in Denver yesterday we are told “OK, we got you here. Now get off our plane.” But some of it is dog eared, as saying that to deflate a life vest, Tom Brady would assist.
Southwest does not assign seats. When we first flew on their airline last summer, we did not know this and so were assigned to the dreaded “C” group. We ended up at the back of the plane, but at least got two seats together, and wizened, knew that next time we would get in the lottery and get better seats. So flying down to Belize we did as instructed. Twenty-four hours in advance we checked in and were assigned to the … C group. When we got on the plane, a 737-700, all the way to the very back the aisle and window seats were already taken. Middle seats abounded. We ended up again in the very back of the plane, but at least sat together. Checking in a day ahead conferred no advantage.
However, and this was interesting … for our connecting flight in Houston we were assigned A group, and were able to get an aisle and middle seat reasonably close to the exit … here is why: We checked in 28 hours in advance for that flight, not by design, but out of necessity. Southwest usually doesn’t do connecting flights, so we had (accidentally) end-gamed them and gotten good seats.
For our return flight yesterday we stayed in our hotel room an extra hour (to be sure we had a good Internet connection) the day before just to be on top if check-in. My finger hovered over the button, and right at precisely 2:10, exactly twenty-four hours before flight time, I hit it. We were assigned A53 and 54, and I thought we would be assured a decent seat.
As we boarded in Belize City, we filed out to the tarmac and a flight attendant checked our tickets to make sure we were not cheating. They were boarding us on the back of the plane, and as I looked behind, I saw that the B group was boarding on the front! It was a free-for-all once on board, and we ended up towards the back of the plane, but at least got a window seat. I sat in the middle. (We take turns.)
What’s up with that? Southwest doesn’t even follow its own rules.
In reality, to get a good seat on a Southwest flight, we have to pay extra, flying business class, or checking in two days early and paying an additional $15 per seat. Since almost everyone does that except us newbies, even “early bird” does not guarantee a good seat. Only business class will do that, just like every other airline.
But there is a difference! Southwest tells jokes. There are only so many decent seats on an airliner, and they have premium pricing. For the rest of us, it is a sardine can. Southwest hired marketing experts to sell us on the idea that they somehow had a better plan, and that their snickering sociopaths are nice people too. But just as with Capital One, who would get us there but not back, they are gaming us.
At least, with Southwest Airlines, we are all laughing together.