Thursday, November 03, 2005

Err Canada

Who says the customer is always right? Who seriously believes any more that the consumer drives the market, the way good old laissez-faire capitalism is supposed to function? That the latter is the ultimate form of democracy, where consumer choice amounts to exercising the franchise on a regular basis?

Not Air Canada. They're taking in healthy profits at the moment, $270 million in the last quarter, and they're here to tell us how capitalism really works. Those of us with the temerity to critique the current economic system and its useful idiots in the blogosphere have in Air Canada, if not an ally, at least a helpful case-study.

Consumers, for the most part, are not free individuals exercising their right to choose. We are people who need to eat, stay warm and clothed, and, from time to time, travel. We usually don't have a choice in the matter. And it is precisely that lack of choice that holds us in thrall to the system.

Now, the essential thing about a system is that it works as an organic whole. All of its parts are interconnected. So, for example, "competition," while having a surface reality--Dodge vs. Pontiac, Grey Poupon vs. Maille, Frosty-Os vs. FrootLoops--does not, and cannot, threaten the system itself, which is based upon maximizing profit. The consumer does not, despite the theory, necessarily get a better and better car, mustard or cereal out of all this. Certainly that can be a result of the system, but it's epiphenomenal. What motivates corporations is not a single-minded drive to produce something better, but simply to sell something, in fact, more and more something. To this end, they use massive amounts of advertising, fancy packaging, and creative techniques to grab up market share, the Coke "Classic" campaign being a sterling example of the latter. But they also use, where they can, the very dependency of the consumer against us.

Some instances of this are the fast-food industry, taking advantage of the speed-up and fragmented day of late modern capitalism, and doing its share to supersize the population, with all of its attendant health problems; the windfall profits of the oil industry due to Hurricane Katrina; expensive bottled water, acquiring its market because of legitimate concerns over the safety of tap water; the unconscionable fees that banks levy on everything but admission to their branches (and I hope I’m not giving them ideas); the skyrocketing prices of hydro, oil and gas for a population living in a cold country; and so on.

Back, then, to Air Canada, a player in what is routinely described as a "fiercely competitive" industry (gosh, how many "competitors" are there domestically?), which has now survived higher fuel prices by raising the price of tickets, charging for pillows and blankets, and now abolishing hot meals on long-haul flights, selling you cold inedibles instead at inflated prices.

Part of what Air Canada does to the consumer is a product of simple mismanagement, but they can get away with it because travel for most is a necessity, not a luxury. I used to wonder why they did penny-wise-pound-foolish things like eliminating cheese from the meals, charging for hospitality service drinks, and now charging for pillows, blankets and lousy sandwiches. And eliminating the compassionate discount, because anyone can buy cheap tickets over the web anyhow--those who have computers, that is. The answer? Like the canine who, er, cleans itself, it’s because they can.

Think about it. Tickets cost a fortune: deregulation, which was supposed to bring prices down, eliminated small players and drove ticket prices through the roof, as well as making remote Canadian locations even more remote. It costs more for me to do Ottawa-Toronto return than to get over to Europe. If cheese or pillows were really a problem, why not add two or three bucks to a ticket price? Or ten or twenty bucks to keep the hot meals? Who'd notice?

Indeed, if consumers really mattered in the process, the last place to hit us would be the meals. That's the only high point of a long flight, after sitting for hours on the aerial equivalent of a three-legged stool, breathing everyone else's air and watching some boring general-release movie. We've run the security gauntlet, been sniffed by guards and sometimes even by dogs, ushered down corridors so long sometimes that we’re halfway to our destination, and strapped into place. So what do they do, perhaps out of consistency? Why, mess with the meals. Tired after that? We'll sell you a pillow.

So, you apologists for capitalism, tell me again about choice. What choice? Where's all this choice we're supposed to have? Where do I turn if I want a hot meal on an Ottawa-Vancouver flight? Where are the fierce competitors, lining up to grab my custom? Why aren't the prices dropping like a plane out of fuel?

Capitalism works like a hot-damn, all right. Just not for us. Have a nice flight.


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