Getting Airlines off the Ground

Over the weekend my family took a short trip by plane. The experience of flying — which I never enjoy — was so bad, it made me despair again for this incompetent industry that we all seem to be stuck with but have little recourse from. The ineptitudes of nearly every airline’s customer experience just boggle the mind and make me marvel at the fact that they can even exist as businesses.


Proposal for an Amazing New Business

How outlandish would it be, it made me wonder, if you tried to get a business started today that adhered to the same logic that dictates the airline industry? You wouldn’t get very far, but I thought it would be entertaining to describe such a hypothetical business just to hear how ridiculous it would sound.

Here are the positives: this is an amazing new service that connects people in truly meaningful ways, at a level that no other product or service can match. The target market is, well, everybody; it’s good for consumers and it’s good for businesses; it’s good for individuals and it’s good for groups; it’s good for young and it’s good for old; it’s good for people of lower incomes and it’s good for people of higher incomes. There’s really nothing quite like this.

Of course, there are a few catches. First, while the technology is of the highest quality, there’s no guarantee that you will always be connected. Of course, the business will endeavor to make successful connections, but about ten or twenty percent of the time it will either fail, or the service will take much longer than promised.

Also, if you use this service to send any attachments, there’s a small but decent chance that they won’t be successfully transmitted, or that the attachments will end up going to someone else. Also, in most cases it will cost you US$25 per attachment.

Security will be a big part of this service. In order to guarantee its integrity, you’ll need to provide more than just a user name and password, as those are too trivially spoofed. Rather, some kind of government-issued identification will be required — not just to sign up, but each time you use the service. And, unfortunately, be forewarned that authenticating each use is going to be a little laborious and may occassionally slow down the service’s performance noticeably.

There’s a big opportunity to think of this service as a kind of platform, meaning other businesses can build on top of it and deliver their products and goods through it. While a consumer is engaged with the service, he or she will be able to get immediate access to only those vendors who have been approved to operate within the service. As a result, prices are likely to be twenty or thirty percent higher than they would be otherwise. Unfortunately, in spite of the increased prices, in most cases the quality of the vendors’ products will be lower.

Additionally, while you use the service, there will be certain times when you will be asked not to use other technology products. The reason is that other technology products might interfere with its operation. No empirical proof really exists that that’s the case, but still the restrictions will stand.

As for pricing, each connection will cost a few hundred dollars, and as much as a thousand dollars or more, too. The exact pricing will actually be quite variable depending not just on the availability and demand of the connection you’re trying to make but also on when you make your purchase. What it costs today may be less than what it costs tomorrow, or, under certain conditions (that will not be disclosed), what it costs today may be more than what it costs tomorrow. Also, in most cases the cost will be non-refundable and non-transferrable. Sorry.

Clearly I’ve used some selective embellishment here to make for a more entertaining pitch, but I think the gist is still right: if the airline business did not exist today and someone proposed building it in the way that we know it to be, no one would stand for it.

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14 Comments

  1. An interesting exercise, but I think it oversimplifies the problem even more than you think. The “industry” you’ve described is multiple industries – the airlines, who operate the aircraft. The Air Traffic Control system (and the FAA). The NTSB (who created the security rules). The airports themselves. All of whom are supposed to work together, but often have completely contradictory goals.

    And of course, you have the issue of weather, which frankly, there’s not much anyone can do anything about (unless you relish the idea of flying unsafely).

  2. Dan: Point well take. It’s definitely a simplification of a complex situation. I’m not sure the complexity excuses the poor customer experience though.

  3. I think the airline industry remains the same simply because they don’t have any reason to change. Some airlines, like Virgin America, do make a better effort with customer service both off- and on-board, but their fares are more expensive than a comparable trip on another airline. For a country as large as the United States, there really isn’t any other option for fast travel, unless you live in the Northeast like we do and have a considerably more extensive rail network with commuter rails and Amtrak.

    Your same hyperbolized account could represent the MTA or really any public transit agency. Fares increase, service usually declines, but what other realistic option is there? For all the complaining New Yorkers do about the MTA, I can’t fathom another way for me to get from Brooklyn to work in Manhattan that’s cheap and almost on-demand.

  4. Khoi -

    I definitely don’t think it excuses the experience (all of it, at least). But, if one is to solve the problem, we have to identify it, right? If we’re trying to solve the problem of delays, for example, we’d start by figuring out what’s causing the delays. Improper allowances for changes in weather/congestion? Is it too difficult to change active runways when the winds change at an airport? Maintenance estimates incorrect? I think that. Obviously, no one here is going to actually solve all of these problems – particularly when some would require massive infrastructure changes.

    You do, however, make many good points about the little indignities air travelers face that are (relatively) easy to fix. Ticket purchasing, on-board experiences, and so forth have no excuse to be as unpleasant as it currently is.

    To rephrase my comment: Does any other industry exist in this same situation, with regards to the interplay of multiple industries/companies that so directly impact the final product, where even the smallest failure can have a severe impact? No industry exists in a vacuum, but it seems like commercial aviation has a fairly unique set of circumstances.

    (Btw, I got my pilot’s license years ago, so I have a high degree of sympathy with both the airlines and passengers when discussions like this pop up).

  5. It’s fun to continue this analogy: the major components of the platform will be so expensive that only a handful of companies in the world can build them, and they may have product lifecycles measured in decades. It will require government agencies to be created to regulate the production of the technology, and likely have tax implications for every citizen.

  6. Dan: I think the key concept is “the little indignities air travelers face that are (relatively) easy to fix.” You’re totally right that there’s nothing to be done about the weather, and probably little to be done about runway congestion or incorrect maintenance estimates, etc.

    But there’s lots to be done to mitigate the inconveniences and frustrations of the flying experience. I listed only a few of them in my post above; there are plenty more, some of them even more significant, and they’re all addressable if the industry just had the slightest bit of interest in changing, which as Matt Covente says accurately, they don’t.

  7. I assume your recent flying experience was a short domestic hop which can be like herding ponies. What airline did you fly and where? You would have probably had a much different experience flying international. A couple bad domestic flights which can be the most stressful, trying; it’s hard to make a blanket statement that applies across the board. Plus if you were traveling with family – Conan O’Brien said it best – that no one traveling with his family, can pass through an airport with dignity. As a father of a toddler myself, I know that statement to be quite true. But I agree with Dan’s first comment above re: the multi-facets – and I think the airlines do a phenomenal job of getting you from point A to point B safely. Whether or not you could plug in your gadgets, did you get enough ice in your diet coke etc. is all a distant secondary.

  8. Hollis: I do give them credit for getting passengers safely from A to B. That’s tremendous. But I disagree that everything else is “secondary,” and I wouldn’t describe it as just “plugging in your gadgets” or “getting enough ice in your diet coke.” If that were true no one would care how they were treated at restaurants, and no one would buy cars with any kind of comfort features, and no one would care to book trips on cruise ships etc. The total experience matters, and consumers have a right to set the bar for the services they buy (especially at the price point of an airline ticket) higher than just ‘safe execution.’

  9. Budget airlines can operate like Greyhound buses with wings. What’s more a lot of the big airlines have contractual partners for smaller routes like Newark-Buffalo and flying regional jets and prop planes can be quite a different experience from a larger route on the actual carrier. Think about “total experience” and setting the bar and how that might apply to a city, like New York. Everything can stand to improve. If your average day in NYC were an airline, would you fly it?

  10. I once read or heard about the history of commercial air travel. There used to be fixed prices and airlines competed based on service and experience.
    Now airlines have to compete only on price. Travel is simply relatively expensive and dependent on weather. The whole industry reacted to the way customers vote with their wallets. Although the screwed up security theater isn’t helping either.

    I just fly as seldom as possible and also just buy tickets based on price (and how trustworthy the airline seems), but trains aren’t comfortable, punctual or cheap either (at least in my experience).

  11. Whenever I fly, which is sometimes a LOT, I think about two different things:

    1) The logical extreme of free-flight and some manufacturing improvements (HondaJet is an example) mean that we could get rid of airlines entirely. No, you don’t get your own airplane, but every stupid little airport can take these planes. Use the internet to book desired travel and then you show up at one of your local airports, take a plane straight to where you want to be with a handful of others with the same needs. Done.

    2) As a brown-bag session some years back my UX team watched a Frontline on marketing, about some startup airline (a brand of one of the bigs) and we did a rather good ad hoc evaluation of what is wrong with the experience. Which is way, way, way past the airlines.
    - The whole booking concept, where I need to know which airport I am going to, is stupid.
    - I need to arrange my own transport to and from the airport, which is pretty inconveniently located, always.
    - Airports are total crap. Even nice ones are terribly arranged, food is overpriced and of low quality, etc.

    Why can’t all of this be part of the travel experience? Seriously, I strongly suspect that there’s no reason but stupidity. An airline could easily also run a car service and put their own checkpoint in when building a new half-billion dollar terminal. Oh, well.

  12. Like most of you I’ve been flying for along time, and I have noted that airline service over time has gotten increasingly worse.

    My first flight was when I was nine years old, I flew by myself to visit my cousins in Sweden. It was a short flight, only one hour from Helsinki to Stockholm. But I still remember the feeling of awe I had the first time. In part it was because I was flying for the first time, and it part it was because I flying alone, but it was also because flying was more of luxury experience those days. The flight attendants went out their way to make it a pleasant trip for you. Your were probably fed and taken care of even pampered.

    These days I sometimes feel they go out of their way to not help you at all. The sense of glamour that we associated with flying in the past has been completely stripped away as flight has gone from being a luxury experience to a commodity. However you would think as it became a commodity the basics of the service would have improved; security check in, bagging handling, purchasing of tickets. Alas, this has not been the case.

    I “somewhat” understand the need to offload costs on to customers, but I would prefer if the costs was added to the ticket price when I’m purchasing it rather than when I show up at the airport. Having to pay 25 dollars extra for baggage, 10 for a meal, all this sometimes seems more palatable when I purchase the ticket. Air Asia does this for example and I don’t mind it all.

    An exception to the poor service rule is notably many of the new asian and middle eastern airlines, Emirates, Jet Air Ways have excellent customer service. Perhaps it’s because of different ideas about hospitality, or simply because flying is still mostly an experience that only the wealthy can afford.

    The Hong Kong Airport experience is also awesome by the way, being able to check your baggage before you get on the air train.

    Please bring back the glamour of flying, I don’t mind paying a bit more, as long as the experience dramatically improves.

  13. New York to Dubai first class is $25,000. NYT Travel section reviewed luxury features a few weeks ago. For that fee some airlines offer access to showers onboard with heated floor, another has enclosed private rooms, another has a personal chef. So luxury options exist-though probably not to the same extent with US airlines.

    Some of these airlines I hear from aviation insiders are flown by captains who openly talk about donating generously to Al Qaeda. One friend was a christian who flew the king of Dubai’s personal plane, but it wasn’t long before he was pressured out for not converting to islam. So some airlines have even higher hidden costs.

  14. And sadly, as true as it all is, everything said is completely negated by the opening paragraph itself… “this is an amazing new service… at a level that no other product or service can match… The target market is, well, everybody… There’s really nothing quite like this.”

    Sad, but true, and I think all businesses can easily fall prey to the “we just don’t need to” logic…

    Atg

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