You get what you pay for revisited — oops, there goes my journalistic objectivity

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By Christopher Elliott

What does “You get what you pay for” mean?

I ask because a post earlier this week ended with airline pilot/analyst Bob Herbst concluding, “Sometimes the old cliché: ‘You get what you pay for’ has true meaning.”

To which I said, “Truer words were never spoken.”

It turns out we probably meant different things. Let me explain.

You get what you pay for, in the airline industry, is often used as a licence to treat price-conscious passengers who demand dirt-cheap fares like, well … dirt.

You want a $99 transcontinental fare? Well, hope you’re ready to pay extra for everything. What’s that, you expect service in the back of the plane? Forget it. One of our surly flight attendants will be happy to give you nothing. (They’re here to save your butt, not kiss it.)

When customers say, “You get what you pay for,” it often means you weren’t a savvy buyer. You purchased a product using price as the sole criteria, when you should have considered quality as well. It means you received a shoddy product to which you weren’t entitled.

So what’s the difference?

To airline apologists, “You get what you pay for” means you deserved the crappy flight you had.

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To consumers, it means you flew on the wrong airline.

Some readers of this site thought I was endorsing the airline view of “You get what you pay for” and lauded me for being “objective.” Sorry to disappoint. (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

I think the airline view — that passengers deserve to suffer through their flight because they wanted to save money — is short-sighted and incorrect. There are plenty of other businesses that provide an affordable product that their customers like. (Related: Here’s how to buy the best luggage for your next trip.)

I was thinking about that today, just as the government released its baggage fee reports for the second quarter.

You get what you pay for, illustrated. I’ve posted a chart above. The industry, meanwhile, is flush with profits.

The airline industry is living the “You get what you pay for” dream. It’s our nightmare.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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