Now boarding Concierge Key members; First Class and U.S. Military; Business Class, Executive Platinum, and oneworld Emerald; Platinum Pro, Platinum, and oneworld Sapphire; Gold and oneworld Ruby; Airpass and Priority; Group 1; Group 2; Group 3; and it’s not until you are standing alone in the gate area that they call your Group 4 just as the night janitor walks by and snickers to himself. Welcome to the 21st century world of air travel.
We all remember how exciting it was to fly, right? We had a backpack stuffed full of coloring books, crayons, action figures, and toys, the essentials. This was the pre-iPhone and iPad era. Notice how snacks were not mentioned. That’s because back then airlines actually served food which was included with the price of your ticket. You were also allowed one, if not two, checked bags and yes, without fees. Then finally, the time had arrived and you stepped on board. You were greeted by the pilot who mentioned that you should come up and visit him during the flight. Being a kid was great. People thought you were cute. You were curious and possessed an imagination that wouldn’t quit. When they handed you your first set of TWA wings, you thought, life doesn’t get better than this as you look out the window and feel sorry for everyone else who has to walk to their next destination.
Things have definitely changed since that cold day in December when two brothers believed that their flying machine would change the world. In 1903, a small group of people watched a man take flight for the very first time in history. The Wright brothers were armed with a dream that this new form of transportation would benefit everyone. Could the Wright brothers have ever imagined the glamorous days of PanAm or the five-tiered seating plan some airlines have adopted today? What began as a benefit for all has turned into a luxury for some.
Today, airlines are looking for ways to maintain profitability. Large airlines try to compete with smaller airlines by offering a basic economy class that comes with no flexibility, no “perks”, but a seat and seat belt in the back of a metal tube that has a pretty reliable on time performance rating. This is the larger airlines’ response to smaller airlines who started to provide an alternative to the high costs of air travel. Instead of each airline understanding who they are intended to serve, the larger airlines decided they want it all. However, the story doesn’t end with a seat on the back of the plane. There are fees. There is a change fee, baggage fee, and cancellation fee. Many airlines over the past decade were able to return to profitability based on the collection of fees alone.
The options are not the problem. The basic issue stems from a form of transportation that should be accessible to everyone is becoming affordable to only some. The customer is now just a passenger. The passenger is now just a revenue number. Airlines offer more perks for first and business class customers because they can charge more for those tickets. It is easier to pay a couple extra hundred dollars when you are greeted with a warm cloth, free beverages, and roasted peanuts that come in a see through cellophane bag. The airline industry justifies its competitive approach to limited resources and increasing costs. The adjustment in fares are presented as incentives to increase opportunities for travel.
Sure, this is focused on the airline industry, but the parallels with higher education cannot be ignored. Higher education provides a common good for everyone, but it is a benefit that is slowly becoming a luxury for far too large a population. While plenty of options exist, the rising costs and increasing fees for what seems like little value discourages students seeking opportunities to better their lives. Institutions spend time competing against each other instead of improving the areas that stand in the way of more students accessing affordable education options. We need options that continue to benefit everyone based on today’s student needs and expectations. We cannot do this if we continue to look at students as revenue numbers instead of people with hopes, dreams, and desires to improve their world.
What would happen if we pursued what others think is impossible with the perseverance of the Wright brothers?