[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]
Dear Dr. Steve,
Well, I never expected to be writing to a spin doctor. At WestJet we are the masters of corporate image-making thanks to our joke-telling flight attendants, our fantastically successful viral videos, and most of all, the fact that we are not Air Canada.
But our latest pioneering innovation is not going over so well. A new $25 first-bag fee for economy fares will break new ground for major Canadian carriers. Suddenly, we are no longer the good guys. How can we fly out of this PR turbulence?
This really must sting. PR is so easy when you're Mr. Rebel Alliance, the alternative to the Evil Empire. But then folks find out you and Darth are related and things look different.
You have done your best to look cuddly and friendly and put some distance between yourselves and Big Red. And thanks to your joke-telling attendants and viral videos, you've done a fine job. But it's time to admit it: you're an airline. You have to be true to your primal urges. There's the occasional story about a snake making friends with a hamster or a lion adopting a gazelle, but eventually Nature must take its course. You must gouge; that is what your kind do. It's like the fable of the frog and the scorpion, except in this case the scorpion stings the frog after being asked to pay an extra-leg tax.
Now your passengers are surely wondering what's next. When WestJet flight attendants tell jokes, will there be a cover charge and a two-drink minimum? Will the next WestJet Santa have to pass out those gifts with baggage charges added? That guy who asked for socks will not be pleased when Santa bills him $25.
Got a tuba? Carry on
Canadians are already desperate to get around baggage fees. Now the battle for overhead bin space, already waged with a bitter intensity that rivals child custody disputes, will only get worse. Even before the new charges you'd see a family of five relocating to Calgary with all their worldly possessions using only the overhead bins. Now expect to see family ski vacations go horribly wrong when the Rossignols pop out of the bin and skewer a flight attendant. I'm expecting a future episode of Mayday where investigators pinpoint which overhead bin held the propane stove.
The first-bag fee also highlights that weird rule of commercial airline physics: Samsonite's Law, which states that weight only counts when in the baggage hold. Your baggage is considered too heavy for the aircraft? Take that marble counter top out of your suitcase, stuff it into your carry-on, and voila, the exact same total poundage is now acceptable. It's like the rule that calories don't count when you're on vacation.
Rebelling against new fees, airline passengers will always seek cheaper options, but in a market as small as Canada they are difficult to find. Air Canada execs were no doubt delighted to see WestJet, that annoying golden child, do their dirty work for them -- they will follow suit with first bag charges of their own. Once upon a time you could escape all this by being elected premier of Alberta; but now even that option is gone.
Above all, what WestJet's first-bag fee has done is underscore the illogical nature of our perceptions. Like the mysterious idea that a chain restaurant selling weak coffee and frozen doughnuts is key to our national identity, there is an ingrained Canadian notion that Air Canada's red livery is derived from its overlord, Satan, while WestJet (and almost any other alternative) are like storks carrying contented passengers in snuggly little blankets.
Foreigners I meet in airports are always surprised to hear that Canadians dislike Air Canada -- I've spoken to Americans who go out of their way to book an overseas leg on our national carrier (and my experiences flying United on the Vancouver-Chicago leg have left me pining for Air Canada's entertainment systems).
But you wanted advice as opposed to ranting, didn't you Mr. Jet? Sorry. The subject of air travel does that to a person. My advice to you is to go all-in. Let WestJet become the Fun Fee Folks. Recent disputes surrounding seat reclining would likely disappear once you start charging $20 per reclined inch -- and selling $25 water pistols to the passengers seated behind. $25 to watch Guardians of the Galaxy; $25 to make the guy who just reclined his seat on you watch Daredevil. $50 for the right to stand up in the cabin and sing Wind Beneath My Wings; $100 for tomatoes.
You guys are creative -- have fun with it.
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