Pay for your frills

How long before airlines understand the potential of preferential seating?

How cheap can airlines get? Awfully cheap. Frequent fliers who appreciate their creature comforts are a bundle of nerves as they mull over the prospects of the unbundling of services by airlines. This strategy will benefit operators and the public, increasing revenues by bringing steerage tickets within the reach of more travellers and offering frills to those who can pay. However, this means that everything but the seat-belt, the toilet and the oxygen masks that famously drop from the bulkhead in emergencies, would be chargeable. Food, beverage, legroom, blankets, seat assignment, everything.

Last year, the delightfully cheap Irish line Ryanair had toyed with the idea of making the last 10 rows of their 737s standing only, with cut-price passengers strapped to backrests with "standing-belts". Airlines have benefited dramatically from doing away with frills like higher classes, free meals and hot and cold towels, which travellers on short-haul flights do not desperately need. But they have not yet understood the killer business plan which could monetise just one element of the bundle: preferential seating. Not for extra legroom, nor proximity to the loo, but for proximity to people of your choice.

Matrimonial flights, you think immediately? That would be so appropriate for India, but so low, so cheap. Rather, think of targeting people who matter. Air India runs such a service already, without knowing it and anyway, it could never monetise anything. Caringly, it seats passengers travelling with infants in the first economy row, which has maximum legroom. That's also the row where ministers and government functionaries have been placed for years, since austerity measures were announced. Infants are now tickets to political connections, but cash would be so much easier to handle. Just joking, of course. Please don't try this on your own the next time you fly.

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