Monday, October 28, 2013

Have airline change fees gotten out of hand?

If you run an airline, load management is a key determinant of whether you make money.  Left to their own devices, customers would gladly reserve seats and then decide at the last minute whether to show up or not.  An empty airline sheet is like yesterday's newspaper - no one is going to buy it.  To create an incentive for passengers to book flights that they plan to take, airlines came up with cancellation fees 20 years ago.   In 1991 they generated $51m in revenue; today they generate more than $1b.  (Aside: these fees are not subject to federal air service taxes or local fees for airline use.  Ditto for baggage fees and other incidental charges.  We have seen airlines shift their revenue flow significantly over the last five years to these untaxed revenue sources.)

Airlines now charge between $150 and $200 to change a reservation.  For an international flight, this is a charge that is hard to avoid, especially if you already have completed one leg of your journey.  But for domestic flights, passengers can compare the cost of a one-way ticket home and the cost of changing their reservation.  WP reports that more and more domestic customers are booking their own return flights and, if warranted, pulling no shows at the gate. 

In a nutshell, the change fees may have gotten so high that airlines are now facing a problem with no shows.  Given the choice between paying $200 for changing a reservation and paying $150 for a one-way return, the no show approach makes economic sense.  Better to pay $150 and never engage with the airline that sold the ticket than to spend 30 minutes on the phone and pay more. 

My take is that companies usually think through their pricing structure strategically, but in this case they may need to reconsider.  They may need to think about changing the penalty for changing a booking to a percentage of the cost of the flight. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mexico to tax soft drinks and junk food

Mexico has passed the US in terms of obesity, with seven of 10 adults now categorized as overweight or obese.  President Enrique Pena Nieto is proposing a series of tax increases to fund increased spending.  WSJ reports part of the package is a one peso tax on sugary drinks.  LA Times reports that there also is a five percent tax on packaged food which has more than 275 calories per 100 grams.

Predictably, the tax is already getting slammed both by citizens upset with the higher cost of simple pleasures and by the companies whose products are being taxed.  From an economic perspective, taxing food to combat obesity is similar to the logic behind taxing alcohol and tobacco.  It would make more sense to have a generalized calorie tax combined with rebates to help the less fortunate.  However, such a tax would have all food companies up in arms, so there is a certain divide-and-conquer element to the government's strategy.  Also many of the leading packaged food and soft drink producers are companies headquartered outside Mexico, e.g., Coca-Cola and Nestle.

Denmark tried a similar tax in 2011 but repealed it after one year after there was no change in eating habits and a lot of junk food smuggled across the border.  Other countries will be keeping an eye on how the junk food taxes work in Mexico.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Economics Nobel Prize

Three American financial economists received this year's Nobel Prize in economics: Eugene Fama and Lars Hansen at Chicago and Robert Shiller at Yale.  MBA students will be exposed to Fama and Shiller's work in their finance classes.  Fama is considered "the father of modern finance" for developing the concept of efficient markets, where all new information about a stock is instantly absorbed into its price.  Shiller's work showed that financial markets were more volatile than one would expect from market fundamentals such as dividends.  He is especially well known for calling the stock market bubble in 2000 and the housing marker bubble in 2006.  Few, if any, MBAs will run across Hansen's main contribution -- the Generalized Method of Moments -- but their finance professors will have had to master this technique.  For more information, see this appreciation by my finance colleague Richard Warr.