A Nation of Producers. A Nation of Consumers.

As I type this, I’m cruising at 37,000 feet on my way to the San Francisco airport.  A few minutes ago, I overheard a flight attendant speaking with a passenger who evidently was irate about having been charged a fee for an extra bag.  The flight attendant good-naturedly said the airline would continue to “nickel and dime” customers, and went on to say that the soft drinks he was serving will soon cost one dollar.  Only water and coffee will be complimentary.

The days of meals on airline flights truly seem from another century – which is basically true.  Air travel in the early 21st century has in many ways regressed from earlier years, which is not something you find in many other industries.  Like any other chain, the air transportation chain is as strong as its weakest link, and in this case the “weakest link” or, more appropriately, the bottleneck, lies in a combination of FAA regulations, technology infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, runway space.

For all the aggravations associated with air travel however, I have been delivered safely to cities and countries all over the world in all kinds of weather.  There’s something to be said for that.

The “nickel and dime” issue which caused my fellow passenger to be unhappy is endemic to many industries, where customers who wish to buy are accommodated; while customers who require service after the sale are forced to listen to automated call systems tell them they will have a long wait time “due to unusually heavy call volumes”.  Since we hear this message quite often, it’s probably safe to say that the call volumes are in fact not “unusually heavy” – they’re probably quite typical.  I suppose it does sound better than informing callers they will experience a long wait time “due to inadequate staffing in our call center”.

Before we spend too much time complaining about all this, let’s acknowledge that when we look for the culprits, we don’t need to look very far.  Whenever the media does a story concerning poor service levels or the latest plant closing, the story frequently follows a narrative which focuses upon consumer or employee pain caused by competition, the quest for profits, and globalization.  While these indeed are important factors, they ultimately are mirrors held up to consumers’ buying behavior.

Many people rail against “Corporate America” for “exporting jobs”.  Since it’s a presidential election year, we’ll be hearing quite a bit of this.  I suggest we all roll our eyes and switch the channel when we hear this sort of talk.  Not because we shouldn’t expect companies to be good citizens, and certainly not because a plant closing isn’t a huge problem for many families and towns – they are.  However, ask yourself this question:  When was the last time you saw an empty parking lot at Walmart?

What politicians and most news stories don’t discuss is the fact that we are not a nation made up of 50% producers and 50% consumers.  We are all both producers AND consumers.  So when we as consumers switch our business relationships due to a half-percent price advantage, or use great technological “flatteners” like the internet to turn complex purchase decisions into low-bid auctions, then we shouldn’t be surprised when corporations use every available option to cut costs – whether in the form of inadequate staffing in the customer service department, or sourcing supplies and end products from lower-cost producers overseas.  Companies that don’t do that go out of business, or they get acquired by their competitors who make those cost cuts.  At the very least, the consumers who hold their stock in their retirement portfolios may be inclined to dump the underperforming stock, thus causing the board of directors to fire management and bring in a team who knows how to cut costs.  The relationship between each of us as both consumers and producers is symbiotic.  It is often difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.

So on future flights, after you’ve shopped all the airlines on Expedia and have used your accumulated credit card miles to cut your airfare, don’t forget to stash some dollar bills in your pocket before you take your seat.  You might get thirsty.

Published April 2008.  Haven’t been hit up for buck for a soft drink on a flight since then, despite the flight attendant’s prediction.  But bag fees are still around.  That’s a drug the airlines will have a hard time kicking.