Behind the about-face at U.S. Airways over's not about you


Last summer, U.S. Airways started charging $2 for drinks on board flights. Even a sip of water was slapped with a $2 charge, with no receipt given. As of today, it's still the only major airline to be so bold. It's lonely out there on a limb. Which is why as of March 1, that unkind policy will be eliminated.

U.S. Airways caves! And we get our free water back.

U.S. Airways admitted that the charge-for-water policy put the airline at a competitive disadvantage. Well, duh. Of course consumers were mad! The idea screwed us from the start. Since the TSA has made it impossible to bring our own water and soda to the gate, customers of U.S. Airways were inescapably strong-armed into being gouged by airport prices (unless they planned to bring empty bottles through security and fill them in the bathroom--and I wouldn't).

On Aug. 1, when its bad idea was forced upon us, U.S. Airways implied the new charge had to be implemented as a way to combat fuel prices. But then fuel prices went down again, and the charge didn't go anywhere. That was the first clue that consumers were being roasted.

But no other airline was foolish enough to follow. That's the way it is in the airline biz. One flyer tries a new fare hike or a novel way to bleed the customer with a la carte pricing, and usually, the other airlines whisper, "I'm so glad they were the first!" and they follow suit, having saved face. This time, though, U.S. Airways stood alone, looking greedy and petty.

Curiously, one reason the airline decided to get rid of the fee was because its on-time performance improved--it went from near the bottom of the list to the top. When the airline was performing poorly, it didn't damage passenger perceptions much to have the fee. Now that its record is so much better, the charge-for-drinks issue was a turning into the carrier's major thorn. That's right: U.S. Airways was never thinking about how the fee inconvenienced you.

Seeing this fee rescinded is good news for the future of domestic air travel. It proves there is a limit to how far a la carte pricing can advance into our lives. All those people who joked that next we'd be charged for oxygen or for using the lavatory can now relax a little--when the airlines charge for bodily necessities, they feel the backlash. Should the TSA ever reverse its policy and allow us to bring drinks from home, though, look for the airlines to see if they can get away with bleeding us again. For now, our thirst for consumer justice has been partly quenched.

Originally published