Are you too stupid to fly?

There are two ways of looking at Allen Nesbitt’s case: We can blame the airline for what went wrong — or we can blame the traveler.

Either way, this case is unfixable, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

The airline? Spirit. Yeah, I know. But stay with me on this one.

Nesbitt’s son-in-law booked a ticket from Portland to Las Vegas for a friend, whom Nesbitt describes as “not computer literate.”

Let’s pause for a moment. You probably know someone who isn’t computer literate, such as an elderly aunt or grandfather.

Keep this question in the back of your mind: Do you also think they’re stupid? We’ll come back to that in a second.

Nesbitt’s son-in-law asked him if he could print a boarding pass for the son-in-law’s friend. And that’s when the trouble started.

“After I typed in the confirmation code, instead of a boarding pass, I was directed to a page to pay baggage fees,” recalls Nesbitt.

“The page wanted $39 each way for a carry-on bag. When I agreed to that, the charge became $45. In order to get the lower rate, it stated that I would need to join a club for $59.99,” he says.

“I then was directed to a page to purchase a seat. I paid $10 each way for a seat,” he recalls. “Finally, I was able to print his boarding pass. I sent an email to my son-in-law, letting him know that I had the boarding pass and had had to pay $110 to obtain it.”

Nesbitt’s son-in-law, who was overseas when this happened, told him none of those steps were necessary. He was right.

“In my attempt to obtain the boarding pass, I did not notice that there was, in very small type, a line that said something like, ‘Skip this step and continue,’” he says. “The same was true for seats. ‘If you do not select a seat, one will be assigned at the airport,’ and ‘Skip this step and continue.’”

Nesbitt called Spirit and was connected to an offshore call center. A representative explained to him in broken English that Spirit doesn’t refund fees. He offered a flight credit, which Nesbitt won’t accept because he never plans to fly on Spirit.

“I feel that this company’s website is deceptive and misleading,” he says. “I believe that I should be refunded this amount as it was not necessary to board the airplane, and that I was prompted into purchasing these services unnecessarily.”

So let’s get right to the two camps that will inevitably form in this discussion:

Blame the passenger.
The nicer ones are thinking that Nesbitt’s son-in-law’s friend should have used a travel agent if he lacked the computer skills. Or maybe the phone. But most travel agents aren’t really into simple, point-to-point itineraries, so he may or may not have found someone to help him with a Spirit ticket.

The not-so-nice ones are thinking these guys aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. Maybe they deserved what they got. What they don’t realize is that Nesbitt is a certified public accountant — a guy who is paid to notice the details. He may not be an experienced air traveler, but he’s probably an above-average consumer. So if an accountant can be fooled, imagine how many other passengers were duped by Spirit’s booking screens?

Blame the airline.
Indeed, Spirit has made deception its business model. While some careful passengers are rewarded with a cheaper flight, the vast majority of travelers are fooled into joining a bogus “fare” club or paying extra for their carry-on luggage. Just because you can’t use a computer or don’t know the ways of the airline industry doesn’t mean you deserve to be ripped off, the “blame-the-airline” crowd says.

Who’s right? Well, I think you all know where I stand on this issue.

This idea — that some people are just too stupid to fly — is one of the most anti-consumer sentiments I’ve ever encountered. It festers and spreads in corporate boardrooms, in aircraft galleys and on credit card shill blogs.

A few weeks ago, I featured a story about airlines that think their customers are stupid. But what happens when customers think their fellow customers are so stupid that they deserve what they get?

Have we become our own worst enemies? Perhaps.

Airlines don’t seem to mind. They like stupid customers and they like it when you think of your fellow passenger as stupid. After all, money is money.

Who is right?

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