I never liked riding a bus, because when people want to stop, they pull a string that rings a bell. This seems a little childish to me. Bing! Bing! Bing! Where are we going, Candyland? Besides, after eight hours of this torture, the driver is like something out of Edgar Allen Poe, hands over his ears, screaming, “The bells! The bells!” And every time he approaches a bridge, I’m afraid he’s going to drive right off.

But I will say this for bus travel: At least everyone pays the same fare. You get on, put your money in the slot, find a seat.

Which is more than I can say for airplanes.

Those of you who fly know it is possible to pay $2,100 for your coach class ticket to Paris and sit behind someone who paid 25 cents.

And he’s in first class.

I have long tried to figure out how airlines charge what they do. I envisioned a little man who hadn’t slept in a year, throwing darts at a map and saying “Now Cleveland is . . . $800! AHAHAHHAHA!”

But I was wrong. Now I see, with the arrival of a new carrier, ValuJet, that airlines actually determine their fares based on the scientific method known as, “Hey, did you hear what those guys are charging?”

ValuJet — which sounds like a garden hose accessory — is charging $69 to fly from Detroit to Atlanta. And suddenly, other airlines, which just days ago got up to $350 for the same trip, are now also charging $69.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me a little suspicious. Read the fine print

I mean, most businesses, they figure out the cost, they throw on a little profit, they come up with a price. But airlines? This week it’s $100, next week it’s $500, buy a month in advance, it’s $39.99. What is this, OPEC?

Also, why is it more expensive to go Laramie, Wyoming, than to Los Angeles? Shouldn’t they be happy someone wants to go to Laramie? Shouldn’t they give a discount?

Destination is just one mystery of airline ticket pricing. There are many others.

For example: Why should it matter how long you’re staying? Isn’t the airline’s job to take you someplace and bring you back in one piece? Can you imagine a bus driver giving a hoot about your “length of stay”?

“Hey, Mac, before you put that money in, where you going?”

“To see my mother.”

“How long you staying?”

“Just until dinner.”

“You ain’t sleeping over?”

“No.”

“Gimme another dollar.”

Here’s another thing: How can it be cheaper to go round trip than one way? Don’t they use more gas and more employees and more delicious airplane food to go two ways than one? So how can a round trip to New York cost $199, when a one-way costs $549?

Airlines will tell you it’s all explained in rules. Rules? Is this indoor soccer? Why do you need rules to buy a plane ticket? Are there rules to ride a

bus? No dancing in the aisles. Stop pulling the string with the bells. Simple stuff, maybe, but that’s it.

There is nothing simple about airline rules because NO ONE UNDERSTANDS THEM. You’ll see a newspaper ad that says

“EUROPE FOR $99!”

And underneath, a paragraph so small that lice would need binoculars to read it:

“No seats included. Standing room only. Brief stops in Memphis, Salt Lake City, Newfoundland and Prague. No getting off plane. Travel good from 1/25 until 1/29, excluding 1/27 & 1/28, Tuesday night stay required, Wednesday night stay forbidden. Luggage may not exceed half a lunch bag. No live farm animals. Void where prohibited. Subject to change without notice — oops, we changed our minds, too late.”

But getting back to ValuJet . . . Others left the radar screen

I like this airline — I like anything that cuts prices by 800 percent — but I wonder how long it will last. It seems like small airlines pop up all the time, make a splash, then submerge.

I remember a carrier called New York Air. They had big red apples on their planes and they gave out the New York Times and they shuttled between New York and Washington and New York and Boston and they bragged about how cheap they were and what a great a place New York was and then, poof, one day they just disappeared.

Maybe they were mugged.

Which brings us to the big question. The airline industry, with its marketing campaigns and route expansions and fare wars, supposedly does all this for one reason: “to entice people to fly.” That’s what you hear. “Entice people to fly.”

I have a better idea. Lower the prices, make them the same for every flight, give everyone an equal seat, and let people get on whenever they feel like it. That’ll entice ’em.

Hey, it works for buses.

Also, put in one of those strings with the bells. It’ll drive the pilots crazy.

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