Calculated Misery

It must be accountants who are ruining the travel industry. Only truly diabolical bottom-line number-crunchers could think up the annoying extra fees that airlines and hotels have begun charging guests. Features that used to be considered part of good customer service are now only provided for an additional charge.


In an attempt to advertise the lowest competitive fares but still protect the bottom line, airlines now charge unexpected additional fees: a seat selection fee, a checked baggage fee, a Wi-Fi fee, a pre-boarding fee, an extra legroom fee, a change of plans fee. Services and amenities that used to be standard now qualify as “upgrades”. Meanwhile, the “standard” experience is frequently so miserable that many people will pay to make it better. The accountants call this, “calculated misery”. Like so many other clever schemes to outwit the customer, “calculated misery” is ultimately absurd. It would be as if a burger joint charged you for a patty of plain ground beef and a bun, then gave you the chance to make your burger more palatable by paying a seasoning fee, a medium-rare fee, and separate surcharges for lettuce, tomato, and onion.


At a recent convention in Scottsdale, Arizona I was having coffee in the lobby one morning and trying to connect my cell phone to the internet. My device informed me that I could pay a one-time connection fee or perhaps consider a weekly fee that would cover my stay at the convention. Considering the room rate I was paying I, of course, was outraged. Smiling, the barista told me that it was a new charge the management had just instituted. She thought it was stupid too, she admitted.

This was not my first stay at this first-class convention hotel, and as I worked my way through the week, I began to notice the accounting gremlins at work everywhere.

  • The swimming pool, always open in the past 24 hours/day for conventioneers, now opened at 8:00A.M. and closed at 8:00P.M. (Just the hours that attendees would be otherwise occupied). Not good customer service, I thought. It was a matter of insurance I was informed by the hotel assistant manager.
  • While checking out, I caught the accounting gremlins adding insult to injury. They had charged me an outrageous “resort fee” that covered my use of amenities like the gym and pool.
  • Parking had always been free at this sprawling resort. This must have been driving the accounting gremlins crazy all these years, because in addition to the Wi-Fi charge, the limited pool hours, and the new “resort fee”, now the parking lots were sporting entrance gates that charged you a fee for parking.
  • When I asked the gardeners what had happened to the famous beds of seasonal flowers that had decorated the entire entrance drive to the resort and had become a significant part of the resort’s identity, they informed me that dry desert landscaping saved water and money. Good-by flowers and identity.

The History of Misery

Charging additional fees for what had been considered standard service started in 1997 when hotels in the Caribbean started extracting the cost of beach towels and bottled water from the advertised room rate. The ruse worked and the entire travel industry was off on a treasure hunt. New additional travel charges exceeded $2.47 billion in 2015 according to a study by NYU’s Preston Robert Tisch Center. The accountants were hailed as business geniuses and many were promoted to CEO.

What Can Travelers Do?

The airline industry’s reputation has already been destroyed. They have reduced their service to a commodity and have eliminated all competitive quality distinction. One airline is as good, or as bad, as another. They have completely forsaken the market value of a competitive reputation for excellent service. The big boys have acquired or eliminated all those nagging little competitors and only five major airlines remain to divvy up the spoils.

So far, only the consumer has suffered. The travel industry will not surrender its profit windfall until travelers take action. Travelers must begin to vote with their feet by refusing to patronize airlines and hotels who nickel and dime them to death after advertising competitive rates. When travelers wake up it won’t be long before the old competitive spirit reignites in the travel industry and quality and service once again become distinguishing factors. The current accountant’s business model of taking away from the traveler will be replaced by the marketing department’s impulse to give everything back. The travel industry will once again realize that the top line is the most important component of the bottom line.

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