“What $550?” I asked Shane, who had called me from some shit hole in Wyoming.
“$537, actually,” he corrected me. “Direct. Barcelona to JFK, round trip.” His voice was covered in static through the mobile.
“That’s incredible. Truly increíble, man. Did you know a ticket from Amsterdam to Barcelona would cost me just as much?” I didn’t believe it when I was looking for a ticket to go meet up with him, and it still didn’t make any sense, even two days later.
“I know, right? That’s a €50 ticket. It’s extortion!”
“Well, it’d be extortion if there was a rhyme or reason to it. The fact that Jeff flew to Madrid on $200 and you can fly to JFK for 500 while I’m paying $1600 to go to Brasilia is just plain chaos. Who prices these things?”
“Well, use your head. You and your friends fly internationally every week — what’s a typical transatlantic ticket going for these days?” He asked. A reasonable question on the surface, pointed as it was. But even with all my flight time and miles logged, I sure as hell couldn’t come up with an answer.
“Granted, they placed me in business class last week,” I said, remembering the over-rated and definitely over-priced €1500 1A seat I had on that 747. Anyone who says it’s unnecessary but worth it is selling something. “But for me, it varies on any given week from €300 to €900. I’m starting to suspect they have a big wheel-of-fortune prop in a hangar somewhere and every day the airlines take turns placing an iguana on it and spinning it until the thing lands on a number that doesn’t hurt their bottom line.”
“I see,” he said, his voice carrying a sound of concern. One thing is sure — coming up with a reliable number is not as straightforward as it should be.
Air travel has become far, far too complicated. We all know this, of course, and we all love to bitch and wail about our own anecdotes of terrifying and sometimes weird horror. We make a lot of noise about the cramped seats, the shitty food, what they did to us at airport security and so on… experiences that are valid, sure, but small. These are the obvious infringements against our comfort, our timeliness and our privacy and the tales carry with them great weight when told to a friend, or bored co-worker. But look around any discussion board on the internet. Listen over the long term. These are not unique. These stories are common place; boring almost. Change is not effected based on boring statistics, no matter how real or rational they are.
It’s the encroachment into the space lacking common sense that we should be watching. The steps in that direction carry the real danger of the industry, but more importantly, they carry the juicy sweetness that any story needs to properly captivate the public for long enough to make a difference.
And I warn you in advance: if healthcare, a deeply important issue that is central to the self-preservation of the economy, every corporation which employs people and just about every living person — and all of the dying ones — is struggling to keep that attention, I wouldn’t give much hope to anything less ridiculous than Scrubs…
But that’s negativity and we don’t need that. Not here, where we’re about to make a point. Which is important if you’re going to be a writer, or at least if you’re going to be a journalist. Which is, for the record, and definately for the moment, out of my hands.
“Amsterdam to Nice is €30 for the weekend,” he told me over the static. I could tell he was sitting in front of a computer, randomly looking up flights. What the fuck did I care about Nice?
“Which weekend?” I asked. I thought it was important.
“…doesn’t matter,” he said, “You’d have to leave in two hours. But if you go next weekend…” he trailed off, probably waiting for the search to finished running.
“That’s more than ten times the price!” I yelled at him, though I’m certain he could do the math. “Are you kidding me? In NO OTHER INDUSTRY are prices this elastic. Why do we, as consumers, put up with this?”
There was silence on his end of the phone.
“Are you still there, man?” I proded.
“Yeah, yeah,” he came back, sort of stumbling. “But are you sure that’s the right economic term? I don’t think that means what you think it does.” I could tell he was smiling. “I thought an elastic commodity was something where the demand is reduced by an increase in price.” Some of it was still struggling to get off his face.
“Don’t get all Adam Smith on me, you nervous ape,” I started. “I said the prices are elastic, not the commodity. Damnit, I’m a writer, not an economist. I’m being descriptive, econometrics be damned. Don’t be a douchebag.”
“Really.” He’s an enigma, especially over the phone. “But, yeah, you’re right. I have no idea why we put up with that though, except that I don’t know how else to react.”
“That says something, doesn’t it?” I asked him. “If other inelastic things such as beer, or advil — depending on who you are — fluctuated in price by a factor of ten every week, what would we do? Not nothing, right?
He thought about it for a second. “Is that even the right example?” He asked. Seriously, this time, I could tell. “Really,” he emphasized.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt. “I’m not sure. Maybe not. But what’s the score here, you know?” I pushed it. “What’s this lead to?”
He thought about it, and I could tell I was getting some of my frustration through to him. I continued. “Take, for example, reservations,” I said, leaning into my thought. “The other day I booked a train ticket from Boston to New York. I booked it online, everything done without so much as a conscious human knowing about my purchase but me.”
“…and the CIA,” he said.
“You rotten bastard,” I scowled at him. “You know those pigs monitor international calls coming into the US. You keep mentioning the CIA every time I call you and I’ll be lucky to be allowed back in the country instead of shipped off to some unknown forest in Eastern Europe or Siberia.”
“Get a grip, man. You sound like those paranoid delusionals on FOX News when you talk like that. Besides, they’ll keep you out of the country for much less than that.”
“True enough, eh?” I said, knowing full well that I’ve got other things to worry about. “Anyway, so I had this ticket I’d booked online, and I realized a couple hours later that I’d have to catch a train sooner than that. Like, in the next two hours.”
“So?” He asked.
“So…can you imagine if it’d been a plane ticket? Can you imagine the possibility of changing a reservation like that? Airline reservations are treated like they were more fragile than babies with osteoperosis. You can barely talk about it, and even if you can, you’ll have problems that strike the kind of bureaucracy only found in the real estate industry and hospital adminstration.
“First the new reservation would have to fall under the same category of ticket class. You knew that there are varying kinds of price classes even within First Class and Business, right?”
“Yeah, there’s like, two or three, I think.”
“Well, I’m not sure how many kinds there are for Economy, but they use most of the letters of the alphabet. So the chances are already grim.”
“Yeah,” he said, following my logic.
“Then you’d better hope that the ticket you purchased was flexible, where changes are allowed for a $100 or $200 fee. If not, and most ‘affordable’ ones aren’t, then you can’t change it at all. Sometimes it’s cheaper and less of a headache to just buy another ticket.”
“Are you saying they do this on purpose?” He asked over the mobile line.
“Do I have to?” I exclaimed, throwing my hands into the air and forgetting that one of them held my phone. Or was holding my phone that is, until it flew out of my hands and across the pavement as I walked from my car.
Fuck, I thought, and walked over to fetch it. I bent down to pick it up and my messenger bag slipped off my back onto my side. I hate it when that happens.
Thankfully I’ve always been into sturdy little phones that don’t have all the other bullshit like cameras, GPS, iTunes, and copies of Shakespeare’s entire works. I saw that the call was still live and heard Shane’s faint little voice, as if he were a tiny little man in my stupid phone saying, ‘Hello? Hello? Hey, are you there? Did the call drop?’
“Yes, I’m here,” I said, annoyed that I had to fix my shirt that was now all crumpled onto one side.
“What the hell happened?” He asked.
“Nevermind,” I told him. “It must’ve been the CIA trying to cut my line, you reckless prick. Watch what you say on international calls, damnit. You know better than that.”
“Whatever, get back to your point,” he said, “…you were going somewhere interesting with that.”
“The point, Shane, is that the system makes no sense at all in its current form and yet we foster the status quo without even thinking about it. It’s like health care.”
“Like health care?” he snided. “No. Don’t start giving me another long-winded schpiel about your most recent political moment of insight. Airlines are nothing like healthcare. They have planes.”
That made me smile.
“Hey,” he said, “you know where the problem with healthcare begins?
I humored him. “Where, Shane?”
“Jesus, man…” I started to say, but he exhaled loudly and continued his thought.
“…a_irlines are like health care — _what the hell does that mean?”
“Yeah. It’s not a system that exists to do what it should be doing. It exists because that’s how it’s grown. That’s what men — mostly rich, white, powerful men — have wanted it to be. Ripped and patched, sabotaged and staged, the legislation and regulation that defines it is constantly open to make room for more profits for — well, somebody. More and more seemingly ridiculous policies that make a few people very rich are put in place over the years in spite of its customers’ woes.”
“Seems to me like a damn fine business model for these fat white guys you seem to dislike so much…”
“Yeah,” I said, “and it’s better than you think. Because it doesn’t matter that the business is going in the tank…CEO’s never lose money.”
“Huh,” he said, and thought for a second. “Then I’ll tell you what I’m NOT.”
“What?” I humoured him. “A CEO? In the right business? Is the liquor store clerkship not paying huge dividends and bonuses this year?”
“…going to get my knee surgery paid for.” There was no mirth in his voice; he sounded serious. “The insurance my parents had bought when I came back to the United States after losing my job in the Netherlands says it was an old sports injury and therefore a pre-existing condition. Fifteen thousand dollars.” I didn’t know what to say. “And if you’re right about airlines that are out to fuck us while barely serving us peanuts, I don’t think I have any hope of nursing my knee back to health without forgoing the next ten years of expenses.”
The line was quiet for a second. One of us swallowed.
“Wait, are you serious?” I asked him.
“Yeah.” He said.
“Really?” I asked him.