Get ready to pay for all the things that used to be free

From more leg room to jumping the queue, there may soon be a price for everything

From more leg room to jumping the queue, there may soon be a price for everything

With great leg room comes great responsibility. Those lucky passengers who are seated in the spacious exit rows of an aircraft are instructed by flight attendants on what to do in case of an emergency: pulling down the handle, tossing out the hatch, heroically checking for flames before leading the exodus, etc. This is the price you pay for being able to stretch out a little during your flight.

Or it used to be. These days the price of an exit row seat is often money. “Premium economy,” they call it, a higher fare that lands between economy and business class. What used to be a lucky break has been monetized.

Will people start paying for things they were accustomed to getting for free? Some people probably thought installing fare gates at SkyTrain stations was a dirty trick. But fare gates are merely a way of preventing theft. And while some customers might be reluctant to start paying for online products they once got free—music downloads or video streaming services like Hulu—the issue is not morally ambiguous. If you use a product, you should expect to pay for it.

But there’s a difference between making people pay for goods and services, and creating a hierarchy. Say this for the new airline premium economy plans—they are at least an extension of a class system that has almost always been part of the air travel experience. Different service, different amenities and different lineups for first class and business packages have always been a routine part of flying. Airlines have simply extended that philosophy to more and more aspects of air travel, via baggage fees, airport check-in fees and so on.

But the pay-for-privilege approach is more likely to create resentment when used elsewhere. On the minor end of the annoyance scale are amusement parks like Six Flags selling special passes allowing holders to skip lineups. Will the water slide class system lead to a revolt of the general admission proletariat? Doubtful.

But how about public roads? Atlanta, Georgia, created something called the Peach Pass. Instead of HOV lanes that reward virtuous behaviour like car pooling, the Peach Pass rewards money. Buy a Peach Pass and you get to use the express lanes on the freeway. Encouraging good behaviour has given way to cold, hard cash.

Anything can be monetized, even consumer dissatisfaction. Customer service lines are supposed to be a way to make things right. But why not pay to bypass them? EE, a U.K. mobile and internet company, allows customers to pay 50 pence (roughly 85 cents Canadian) to jump ahead of others in the phone queue. Hypothetically this could spawn a moral hazard where a company creates more problems so as to generate more revenue from its customer service line. But EE insists that when serious systemic issues occur, the pay-for-priority system is suspended. Still, imagine how much money it could yield for cable companies.

Where it really gets dicey is health care. In a 2016 lawsuit, two Calgary doctors alleged that the private Copeman Healthcare centres in Vancouver and Calgary urged doctors to give preferential treatment to patients who paid extra fees, a charge the Copeman clinics deny. Such a system would contravene the Canada Health Act.

“Sometimes, market values crowd out non-market values worth caring about,” writes Harvard prof Michael Sandel. He cites the example of child-care centres that institute financial penalties for parents who are late picking up their kids. Instead of discouraging the behaviour, fees tend to encourage it—parents know they can buy themselves time. What’s worse, Sandel says, is that even when such penalties are scrapped, the bad behaviour tends to persist. Money corrupts, and the corruption lingers.

As for new fees charged by air carriers, they seem less about survival and more about opportunism. RyanAir, the poster child for outrageous fees, actually backed off a little a few years ago, reducing its airport check-in fee (for those who forget to check in online and print their own boarding pass) from a gobsmacking £70 to a merely outrageous £45. And on a recent Air Canada flight from Montreal to Vancouver, with the cabin about half-full, the “premium economy” exit rows were conspicuously empty. Vive la résistance!