Published for www.dmarron.com, May 7, 2012
Companies often run into trouble when they offer a service at a zero price.
Not always, of course. Many all-you-can-eat buffets continue to thrive even though the marginal cost of the next chicken nugget is zero. And many content providers manage to stay in business by selling radio, TV, or display ads against the free content users enjoy.
But all too often, a zero price attracts bad customers and encourages excessive consumption. Marco Arment of Instapaper, for example, discovered that a zero price attracted “undesirable customers” for his app. And AT&T famously discovered that offering unlimited iPhone data could overwhelm its capacity.
Thanks to Ken Besinger of the Los Angeles Times, we now have another juicy example: the lifetime passes that American Airlines sold to a small group of customers:
There are frequent fliers, and then there are people like Steven Rothstein and Jacques Vroom.
Both men bought tickets that gave them unlimited first-class travel for life on American Airlines. It was almost like owning a fleet of private jets.
Passes in hand, Rothstein and Vroom flew for business. They flew for pleasure. They flew just because they liked being on planes. They bypassed long lines, booked backup itineraries in case the weather turned, and never worried about cancellation fees. Flight crews memorized their names and favorite meals.
Each had paid American more than $350,000 for an unlimited AAirpass and a companion ticket that allowed them to take someone along on their adventures. Both agree it was the best purchase they ever made, one that completely redefined their lives. …