Our airlines are underappreciated. Even when there are glitches, a plane usually shows up, we board, and the pilot apologizes because it took us 25 extra minutes to cross the country.

Equally fascinating is how airlines price their services. The same seat that cost one passenger $228 with a three-week advance purchase can cost a last-minute flier over $2,000. This is maddening for the business flier, who cannot plan 21 days ahead and spend the weekend away from home.

Ticket pricing is done with a highly computerized system of "yield management." The process takes advantage of knowing when and at what time various groups travel. The person without a choice pays top dollar, and the one who must be coaxed to fly gets a favorable rate.

The incentive for using yield management to fill the seats is simple. An airline needs to employ tons of smart, well-trained people, who must be paid whether the plane is full or empty. And the airline seat itself is the most perishable product in the world. Once it has gone from New York to Dallas, it can never be sold again for that flight.

Smart airlines take a similar attitude toward filling their first- class seats. They are generous in allowing loyal customers to upgrade at the last minute for free, rather than leave the seat open. As a result, the customers use that airline whenever possible in the hope of being upgraded, despite the long odds on popular flights. (I've never had trouble upgrading on the red-eye from Newark to Cleveland in mid-winter.)

Are there analogies for community banks? You bet!

Isn't the idle ATM like the empty airline seat? If people can be encouraged to use the ATM instead of the teller, the teller staff can be reduced-thereby cutting costs.

But we see banks going the other way, making ATMs more expensive to use instead of more attractive, while very few banks have had the courage to charge extra to see a human. Encouraging people to come into the bank would be great if the tellers did cross-sell other bank services. But usually they don't.

Why are most safe deposit vault staff so uninformed on bank services in general? These are the people who get to know the most affluent customers- and thus could be the bank's best cross-sales specialists, if only they knew what profitable products to promote.

Think of the yield management possibilities if the bank took the trouble to learn who is moving into town, who lost a job, or whose spouse died, and then followed up to help these people adjust financially to their new circumstances.

It may take time to learn which companies are bringing which new people into town. But once they have been attracted into the bank, continuing the relationship can be almost automatic.

It is like the oil salesman who waited outside my new home all day and rang the bell 10 minutes after I arrived. I don't know how he knew I was coming that day. But he waited and then took 10 minutes to sell me oil. I never saw him again, but I saw the oil bill every month for as long as I owned the house.

Other examples of how a bank can use yield management to get the most return for its services:

Branch managers and platform officers should know which bank services are the most profitable.

Instead of offering special rates to senior citizens, offer them to lawyers, accountants, and others who can help the bank through referrals. Also, they can be offered to young medical students and others who probably will have solid incomes soon.

Offer a lower mortgage rate to those paying by direct transfer of funds from a demand deposit, to reduce operating costs and assure that the borrowers will maintain decent demand balances to avoid overdraft fees.

Yield management has done a lot for airlines. It can do a lot for banks too.

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