So….you’re sticking it to yourself

I was thinking about that old Sprint phone commercial today, the one where the young worker is standing in the executive’s office, notices the executive’s new Sprint phone, and asks him about it. The executive describes the Sprint “Fair & Flexible” plan and what he gets from it, and explains that the plan is his “little way of sticking it to the man.”

“But you are the man,” says the young worker.

“I know,” replies the executive.

“So you’re sticking it to yourself.”

“Maybe,” admits the executive.

In my memory, that’s not a very old commercial, but have a look at that ancient flip phone. And, even though the commercial has cast a long memory, I’m not 100% sure Sprint is even in the phone business anymore.

The reason I was thinking about it is that the Premier League TV schedule was finally set yesterday for the December games. We have tickets for one of the December home matches, and were waiting for the schedule since our flights need to be as tight to the match as possible to control costs and minimize vacation days from work. We had planned for my son to attend this game with me, so we’re also working around his school schedule. The match was originally scheduled for Saturday, but there was a high probability it would be changed once the UK TV executives got their hands on it.

While I’ve been waiting for the game schedule to be announced, I’ve been keeping an eye on airfares from Chicago to London. They’ve been gloriously low. As soon as the match schedule was announced, we’d pounce on the air tickets as well.

I was travelling for business in Minneapolis yesterday when I noticed that December TV schedules were announced. It was a good thing we’d waited because the Saturday match had been changed to Monday. If we’d bought air tickets in advance for the presumed Saturday match, we would have planned to leave London on Sunday, missing the actual game altogether. But much like what happened with the Liverpool tickets earlier in the season, as soon as we were able to buy yesterday, airfare rose by more than 50%.

Unlike what happened with the Liverpool tickets, today airfares did not drop. I spent the whole train ride into the office trying to figure out what combination of flight times/dates and stops might produce an acceptable price and survivable trip, and checked back in several times during the day. No good luck came my way.

Because I had seen before that tickets to London from the east coast are often cheaper than tickets from Chicago, I thought I’d check prices from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. This is how I found that it was possible to fly from LaGuardia to Chicago to London for approximately $940.

The exact same flights from Chicago to London and back cost approximately $1,500…if you skip the LaGuardia part.

It’s open seating in my office, so no one does anything privately at their desk. You have a fight with your spouse, it’s out there for everyone to hear. Battling it out with the utility company? Everyone gets to enjoy that. I’ve even heard people interviewing for other jobs while sitting at their desks. So before I called American Airlines to find out what they had to say about this situation I mentioned to nearby colleagues what I’d found and asked if they knew whether you could just skip a part of a trip and get on the plane where it made sense; i.e., could I skip LaGuardia and hop on at Chicago and still pay more than $500 less per ticket than I’d have to pay for an additional two-hour flight. My colleague near me said, “Yeah, I’ve always wondered about that.” So I called American. I had the flights from Chicago to London up on my left monitor and the flights from LaGuardia to Chicago to London up on my right monitor.

What ensued was a bit amusing. First, it’s not extremely easy to locate a phone number because American would rather you use their website. Once you get in, American ensures that you stay on task by the use of a robo receptionist. The only conversation you are going to have is the one they want you to have: name where you’re going and when and then they’ll tell you what you need to know, all the while encouraging you to use their website. At some point during the call, the robo receptionist misinterpreted something I said as saying that I wanted to speak to a human, and all I had to do was press 1 on my phone to get them. Good option; I took it.

Actually, next I got the recording that tells you you can hold for 6 to 8 minutes or put your name in the queue and they’d call you back without losing your place in line. I took that option and waited. Sure enough, a machine did call me back, telling me to press 1 when Amy O was on the line. Easy enough; I pressed 1.

Now I got the human I craved but he, too, had been programmed to ensure that no conversation occurred that wasn’t the conversation he needed to have. When I started to give some background on the exercise I’d completed in finding flights, he interrupted me: “Where do you want to fly and when?”  I told him, and he came up with the same flights from Chicago to London that cost $1,500.

Finally, I interrupted him and asked him what I wanted to ask him: I see the same flight from Chicago to London at $500 cheaper if only I arrive at Chicago from LaGuardia. May I buy those tickets and get on at Chicago, skipping LaGuardia? “No you may not,” he told me. I asked him why. He answered. I thanked him politely and hung up.

My colleagues were waiting patiently to understand the secret. I tried to muster exactly the same tone that he’d used on me, patient, as if I were possibly the dumbest loser in the world: “Because that’s not the way air fares work.”

D’oh! Why didn’t I think of that?

So I get it that direct flights have a higher value for passengers and that airlines should extract the value that people place on it, but in a case like the LaGuardia case, I don’t see what the airline gets out of it. Why would it be better for them to fill the flight from Chicago with people from New York when they have to transport them there for -$500? I would pay more than that LaGuardia passenger would pay to get to London; it just can’t be 50+% more.

All I can conclude is that, like the executive from the Sprint commercial, they’re sticking it to themselves.

And to the “other” man, who happens to be me.

So I sit tight, holding tickets for what is probably the most exciting Premier Match in December, hoping that I can ultimately find a budget-friendly flight to take me there.

Fingers & toes crossed. I need to be at the match.

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