Some airlines make the experience of flying so awful that you would pay extra to avoid the awfulness. In the words of the law professor who coined the term “calculated misery”:
…in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.
is the reversal of how we usually think about upgrades. Think of going to a restaurant and ordering a burger: Cheese and bacon usually cost extra, and many people will gladly pony up because the gooey cheese and crackling, salty bacon enhance the experience.
With the airline industry, it’s the opposite: You’re upgrading to avoid hell.
It’s like if a burger joint charged you for a patty of plain ground beef and a bun, then gave you the chance to make your burger more palatable by paying a seasoning fee, a medium-rare fee, and separate surcharges for lettuce, tomato, and onion. Or, in airline speak, a seat selection fee, a checked baggage fee, a wifi fee, a preboarding fee, an extra legroom fee, and so on.
In the airline industry, many services and amenities that used to be standard now qualify as an “upgrade.” Meanwhile, the “standard” experience is frequently so miserable that many people will pay to make it better.
More: Why airlines overbook, and your rights as passengers.