Frontier is doing away with its toll-free number as part of its transition to being an ultra low cost carrier (ULCC), and when I heard the news, I didn’t think much of it. But USA Today published a story (for which I was interviewed) in its paper edition yesterday talking about it, so clearly someone thinks this is a big deal.
As anyone who has ever flown knows, airlines have traditionally had toll-free phone numbers to call for reservations and information. Some of these have been seared into my memory since when I was an obviously dorky child.
American 800-433-7300, Delta 800-221-1212, Hawaiian 800-367-5320, Southwest 800-IFLYSWA, United 800-241-6522, though I think they promote 800-UNITED1 now, US Airways 800-428-4322….
In fact, these numbers have stuck with me so strongly that I remember phone numbers for many airlines that are long gone.
Aloha 800-367-5250, America West 800-2FLYAWA, Northwest 800-225-2525, TWA 800-221-2000….
Back in the day, a toll-free number was a necessity. If you weren’t booking through a travel agent or visiting a city ticket office, then that 800 number was pretty much the only way to book. If airlines wanted the business, they had to make it cheap to call them. Of course, long distance calling was very expensive, and we’re not talking about ancient history here.
In the 1980s and into the 1990s, people were probably paying as much as 35 to 50 cents a minute to call across the country, and that’s before adjusting for inflation. An airline couldn’t survive forcing people to pay that much money just for the privilege of reserving a ticket. Toll-free numbers were needed.
Today, however, long distance isn’t even something that most individuals think about. Mobile phones generally have unlimited talk time anywhere in the US. The same goes for the shrinking number of landlines in existence. They’re often bundled with cable, internet, and yes, unlimited domestic calling.
Can you still pay for long distance as an individual? Oh you sure can. AT&T has a plan where you pay $2.99 a month and then 10 cents a minute to anywhere in the US. Does anyone actually have this plan? Or should I say, does anyone under 60 have this plan?
I can’t say I have specific data about how many people pay for long distance, but let’s think about this rationally. First, we have to remember that this only an issue for people who are flying. If you’re thinking about the elderly who are on subsidized phone service, they probably aren’t buying plane tickets. In that group of people who are actually buying tickets, we can first eliminate those who book online or at the airport and don’t need further phone assistance. Then we can eliminate those who book through travel agents, online or off. Lastly we can eliminate those people who don’t pay for long distance. What’s left? It can’t be all that much.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that ULCCs would be the first to try to cut their 800 numbers since they’re the ones looking to keep costs as low as possible. Frontier alone says it will save nearly $2 million a year by cutting the toll-free number. That seems like a smart move.
Allegiant (702-505-8888) has chosen a number from its hometown. Spirit (801-401-2220) and Frontier (801-401-9000), however, have gone a sleezier route. They’ve chosen the Utah area code of 801, which is suspiciously close to an 800 number. It’s also located in a state where Spirit doesn’t even fly (but Frontier does). Why bother with this little game? Well, I suppose it could trick a couple of senile old folks who pay for long distance into believing it’s a free call, which would be pretty terrible. Most likely, however, it’s probably an effort to trick people into thinking it’s toll-free so they don’t think less of the airline. Perception is important.
While perception really is an issue to consider, it’s not a problem for ULCCs. As I said in the USA Today article, “they want to seem cheap. That’s their message. ‘We have low costs and that lets us offer low fares.'” If United tried this, there might be more pushback. It does sound cheap, and despite their best efforts, traditional carriers don’t want to come off that way. While I doubt we’ll see legacy carriers ditch their 800 numbers anytime soon, they would be wise to start providing local numbers more… which brings me back to the beginning of this post.
I’ve memorized all those 800 numbers, and I call them when needed. Is there a reason I don’t call a local number when I call United? There isn’t. I just don’t know that it exists. Every airline should at least do a better job of talking about local phone numbers today. That could help bring costs down without even ditching the toll free number. But for ULCCs? It shouldn’t matter. And in a few more years, none of this will matter at all.
What do you think?
[Original nurse photo via Shutterstock]