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If you want better airline service, vote with your wallet

By Brett Snyder, Special to CNN
Southwest Airlines attracts fliers who appreciate that the airline doesn't have bag fees.
Southwest Airlines attracts fliers who appreciate that the airline doesn't have bag fees.
  • When fliers value price and schedule above all else, airlines have no incentive to improve
  • If you hate bag fees, choose airlines that don't have them, even if the fare is bit more
  • If you like entertainment options, choose airlines that value those offerings

(CNN) -- People love to complain about the airlines, but there's one problem with that. It won't do any good.

That doesn't mean that travelers can't get airlines to improve service, but complaining probably isn't going to do it. Forget about using your mouth or your pen; it's time to start using your wallet to effect change.

Think about the last time you bought a plane ticket. What factors did you take into account? For the vast majority of people, it's price and schedule that impact what they buy more than anything else. It's been that way for a long time, and that isn't likely to change anytime soon.

That's why you hear Irish discount airline Ryanair's chief Michael O'Leary talk about stand-up seating. There was an uproar when he started floating the idea as a way to cram more people into each airplane, but creating an uproar is what he does best. He loves free publicity, and this kind of publicity doesn't hurt in the slightest for the airline, as long as the price is good.

So how do you prevent this lowering of service levels if you're a customer? Sometimes you have to pony up and pay a bit more for better service and products. Look more closely at what you're getting for what you're paying and direct your dollars to airlines that offer higher levels of service.

O'Leary knows that if he puts stand-up seats on the plane for less than regular seats, he will get people to fly standing up. With a lower price, it could open up flying to a new crowd that couldn't afford it before.

It's the same thing that happened after airline deregulation in the United States. People like to talk about the glory days of regulation when attractive flight attendants served you filet mignon. But guess what? Those tickets were expensive. Very expensive. It cost over $1,000 (in today's money) to fly round-trip on a bargain-basement fare between Los Angeles and New York.

When the industry deregulated, it realized that it could start serving the masses by bringing prices down. People lined up in droves to fly because they could finally afford it, and the airline industry took off, so to speak. As airlines started realizing what people would and wouldn't pay for, they changed what they offered. And generally, they've offered less and less for free.

That doesn't mean there aren't options for you if you want a better experience. You just have to be willing to pay more for it in some cases. I'm not talking about $10,000 business class tickets to Dubai (though that does sound nice, right?) I'm talking about supporting those airlines that provide more.

If you hate baggage fees, then fly Southwest or JetBlue. Neither will charge you for your first checked bag, and Southwest won't charge for the second, either. Regardless of whether the fare on these airlines is more or less than a competing carrier on your route, if you hate baggage fees, support the airlines that don't have them.

If you hate cramped legroom, fly JetBlue with its roomy seats or choose United and pay that small fee to sit in Economy Plus.

If you hate a lack of in-flight entertainment, you can fly airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America that give you a ton of options from live television to movies and games.

I'm writing this column on a US Airways flight from Washington to Phoenix. The flight time is about five hours and there is no entertainment on board at all. Not even a measly movie on an overhead screen. And do you know why?

It's because US Airways found out that while people might enjoy in-flight entertainment, they weren't choosing their airline based on whether it had it or not. US Airways saw no loss from its customers when it removed the movies. And it has publicly said that it would be glad to bring it back if it found a model where it paid for itself.

Now, the people of Chicago have an opportunity to show that they get it. Virgin America just announced it will begin flying from the Windy City to San Francisco and Los Angeles in May. So will people choose Virgin over United and American and make its entry into the market highly successful? Time and time again, this hasn't been the case.

New airlines come in, the existing airlines match the new carrier's low fares, and people keep flying the airlines they always flew, just at a lower price. With matching fares, customers tend to choose the familiar airline because the schedule is better. Then those same people cry when fares go up after the new airline goes away.

When consumer behavior changes, the airlines will change as well. So, think about that every time you pull out your credit card to pay for a flight.