I have a secret (and I’m telling)

This week’s most popular story will probably come as no revelation: It was Heather Dratler’s tell-all about what experienced air travelers wish infrequent fliers knew.

Seems everyone wanted to chime in with their favorite tip for the occasional airline passenger. More on that in a minute.

If you love clickbait, you probably also noticed the ol’ “I’ve got a secret and I’m not telling” trick in Heather’s headline. And in this one.

I wrote both deliberately.

This idea, that in order to be an effective consumer you need some special knowledge, pushes people to a site. But it’s worth pondering for a moment. How does the insider-knowledge requirement affect consumers?

I’ve seen the rise of a whole class of blogs and specialty publications that promise to convey some “expert” knowledge to their readers, while at the same time selling them the credit card of the week or a self-published book. I see how they call those of us not in the know “gate lice” and “kettles.”

Forgive the eye roll, please.

To the average reader, it sure looks like a classic “win-win.” The bloggers get their traffic and money. You get to manipulate the system a little. No one gets hurt. Right?

Let’s think about this for a moment. Who really benefits? You get a little, the self-appointed experts get a little, but the company creating these layers upon layers of complexity — well, they get a lot.

Regina Litman’s comment about airport codes really got me to thinking. In order to know where your checked bag is going, you have to memorize a list of often nonsensical codes. How silly is that?

By the way, I love the abbreviation for Orlando, my home airport, which counterintuitively abbreviates MCO: Mickey’s Corporate Office. That’s funny, Noah Kimmel.

This happens across corporate America. Ever tried to apply for a mortgage? Buy a car? (Quick, what’s the difference between the sticker, invoice and MSRP?)

It shouldn’t be this way. We ought to be able to buy a product with the confidence that no “expert” knowledge is necessary. We shouldn’t have to worry about overpaying for an inferior product just because we didn’t subscribe to the right blog.

And that, my friends, is why we’re here. Where everyone else wants to make the purchasing process more complex, we struggle to simplify it. Airlines have figured out how to make more money by “unbundling” their fares, marking up the extras we need like seat assignments and checked baggage, and reselling them to us at an excess profit.

And of course, the only passengers spared these indignities are the “experts” who figured out a way around the upcharges by signing up for a loyalty card or using their insider knowledge to avoid paying the fees.

I really liked Heather’s story, but the discussion that followed it was an eye-opener. It lifted the lid on an entire class of passengers who use their “secret” knowledge to navigate a customer-hostile system. I admire them, but I blame the airlines for making the flying process needlessly complicated. The only reason for all the fare classes and loyalty programs that demand a lemming-like obedience from their members is to enhance shareholder value.

What ever happened to creating a better product?

So here’s my secret: I’m so on to them. They think they’re so clever, that by adding a new class of service (what, four classes isn’t enough for you?) or wrapping their avarice in industry lingo, it will somehow make it more palatable to consumers. Maybe because the so-called “experts” say it is so.

But you know better. Airport codes, codesharing, loyalty programs — it’s all meaningless. After you take off, it’s just a seat in the sky. The complexity rewards a few outside shills and a lot of shareholders, but in the end, we are all the suckers.

Wouldn’t it be a great to live in a world where you don’t have to be an expert to be an competent consumer? Where the price of your product is the price you actually paid — no tricks? And where it’s illegal to make deception your business model?

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