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Public Wary of A-La-Carte Airfares

In the days following [[American’s]] announcement of a shift to a-la-carte pricing, readers here at have had an awful lot to say—and not much of it positive. Many readers asked important questions that expose the potential difficulty of implementing an a-la-carte pricing structure. Let’s take a look.

First of all, many of you simply aren’t interested in the proposed fare scheme. As reader TiredFlyer put it, “I’m against the new pricing structure. All changes are external and the consumer pays for them. What’s being done internally to improve service, customer support, new aircraft, cleaner toilets, better food, etc? They need to look inside before making changes elsewhere.” A-la-carte pricing is essentially a repackaging of the same old product, which inevitably leads customers to wonder if they’re being charged more but not getting anything new or better.

This uncertain value proposition is at the heart of American’s plan, meaning the airline needs to be thoughtful when it comes to determining its prices. As reader Shelley notes, “If American is going to nickel and dime people to death, a ‘no frills’ ticket needs to be on par with other ‘no frills’ airlines.” This comment echoes a concern I noted, which is that prices for American’s least-frills tickets need to be in line with fares from other a-la-carte carriers like [[Spirit]]. Otherwise the ticket has little value to a budget-conscious traveler, which is presumably the target market for cheap, no-frills fares.

Reader DLove wondered how American will tackle the practicalities of a-la-carte pricing: “This is a simple sounding concept that will quickly become very complicated if implemented. I agree that we would be better off with a ‘clear, simple airfare menu,’ but they will start with exceptions (like who DOESN’T have to pay for a second checked bag) and pretty soon you will have to have an MBA to understand the menu. Are they going to make passengers wear color coded wrist bands to determine who pays for a soft drink?” These are good questions all around. I think the likeliest solution is for American to hand out vouchers for most inclusions, like meals and complimentary checked bags, which is simple but does require travelers to keep track of their paperwork. You do not want to lose that meal voucher. American could also issue coded tickets telling flight attendants which passengers get which amenities.

Some readers, however, don’t mind the idea. Reader JVMurph said, “I like the a-la-carte pricing, except for soft drinks and water. Since you can’t bring drinks through security, I think the non alcoholic drinks should still be at no charge.” Reader MagnaRiderSD had nothing but praise, saying “Bravo, AA. Looking forward to the changes – and continued excellent service.” Amidst all the criticism, it’s important to remember that there is potential for this move to be positive. If American prices its tickets fairly and gives passengers good amenities at the middle tiers, a-la-carte fares could be a big win for consumers.

But reader Highland3r summed up what I think can’t be ignored, which is that customers, fatigued by a year of escalating fees and fares, no longer expect airlines to do anything customer-friendly: “I don’t have any faith that American’s new pricing structure will benefit the consumer. In the past year we’ve seen prices go up while at the same time new fees have been added for things that used to be free. In the new pricing structure, I foresee the lowest level prices to remain consistent with what we’re seeing now while even more ‘amenities’ become fodder for added charges and/or higher price tiers.”

I’m sure we’ll hear plenty more about a-la-carte pricing in the weeks and months ahead, so thanks to everyone who has shared their opinions so far and keep those comments coming.

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