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THE INC. LIFE

This Man Was Appalled At American Airlines’ Price-Gouging (He Helped Design the Systems Behind It)

Sometimes, you can help create something that ends up being used in very painful ways.

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BY Chris Matyszczyk - 18 Mar 2018

This Man Was Appalled At American Airlines' Price-Gouging (He Helped Design the Systems Behind It)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

 

Flying offers such hope.

The hope of new places, new smells, new experiences.

Sometimes, airlines do things that actually enhance that hope, with service that is quite extraordinary.

In recent times, JetBlue, Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic have all offered me precisely that.

But airlines are currently snorting on the crispy cocaine of nickel-and-diming, price-gouging and generally seeing how uncomfortable passengers can be made before they decide to scream.

Or drive.

Part of airlines' strategy has been to unbundle everything, in order to charge for every little thing you used to think of as standard and normal.

I was moved, therefore, by a lovely story told by consumer advocate Christopher Elliott in the Washington Post.

He describes how Bruce Mainzer was helping his wife, Beth Shadur, find a window seat online for a flight she was taking from Chicago to New York.

The software insisted that she pay an extra $46.

She, not an exalted level of flyer, decided that no, no, she wasn't paying that sort of money.

She'd talk to a kindly representative at the airport and would surely have the situation rectified.

Sadly, the only thing that was rectified was the price.

It was rectified upwards another $30. Yes, Shadur ended up having to pay $76.

This is surely an everyday tale. It is, until you learn that Mainzer used to work for United Airlines.

He was the airline's director of inventory management. One of his roles there was to help design software that is now used to perform the fine management that sucked an extra $76 from his wife's credit card.

Even he, though, sounded astonished at how such software is now being used.

"It shows sophisticated price gouging, and preying on the fears of inexperienced fliers like my wife. I believe that is really taking advantage of people," he told Elliott.

Mainzer was surprised that a system that was once used merely to keep a few seats blocked for the high-falutin' flyers -- of which he's one -- is now being used wholesale to extract the maximum algorithmically possible from every single customer.

This, I fear, is only the beginning.

Recently, I wrote about how airlines are seriously examining software that chooses to charge people not according to where they're flying or even what class of seat they're interested in, but according to who they are.

After all, we're constantly giving away so much of our private selves online. That data is available for sale. Or hacking, of course.

So it's entirely conceivable that an airline will know, the minute you land on its website, the precise reason why you're traveling, how desperate you are, how much you've paid for all your previous flights in the last five years, how great your net worth might be, and, who knows, whom you email about your more intimate affairs.

This isn't, for one moment, to carp at American. Well, not just at American.

Mainzer's tale could have involved so many airlines.

Look at United, for example. It's just started charging a minimum of $9 for overhead bin space.

When the impulse to maximize profit at all costs meets technology that is ever more intrusive, the results will inevitably be ugly.

When it comes to seating choices, airlines realize that window and aisle seats are valued far more greatly than the dreaded middle.

So they often block them all off, ready to maximize the price you'll have to pay, even if you ask nicely.

One result, of course, is that families may be separated -- a charge frequently leveled at Irish budget airline Ryanair.

A bigger result, though, will soon be that you'll turn to the person sitting next to you and politely inquire: "How much did you pay for your seat?"

"80 bucks," they'll say.

"Damn. I paid 120," you'll reply.

And you'll be the one in the middle seat.

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