I flew this past weekend. The whole experience is pretty awful and we considered it a successful trip. We have such low expectations. Is it any wonder that airlines are struggling and blaming economics and security for their pain? What is really happening is a needed restructuring of the whole system. Because the hardware is big and expensive this restructuring is very costly. Some of the biggest players are going down.
The fundamental issue at the heart of all things flying is the value proposition. What is coming under examination and reconsideration these days is what are people buying when we contract for air travel. It's often said that the railroads lost out to air travel because the railroads failed to understand that they were in the transportation business. Transportation was what their customers wanted and when there becomes a more efficient way to get from point A to point B people switched from rails to wings.
The airline business offered faster transportation. Faster transportation spawned a market for commerce based on face to face communication. Business travelers built businesses by traveling for face to face meetings. Now as business are switching to new technologies and business paradigms that rely less on costly travel the airlines have found the sand their business's are built on have radically shifted. This shift was accelerated by the security issues spawned by September 11th attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism.
Being unable to fly for a few days and too scared to fly for several more days, weeks or months caused all business travelers to reconsider their traveling practices. New technologies and ways of doing business have increased since September 11. Internet meetings, video conferencing, Instant Messaging, E-mail, SMS, Web enabled wireless picture phones and soon video-telephones and remote presence robots all reduce the need for business people to travel. Time for airlines to rethink what business they are in.
People want experiences in their lives. They want or need to spend time with friends, family and meaningful individuals in their lives. They want to visit interesting places. They want pampering or adventure in their lives. Transportation is an ingredient of these experiences but it's not the most important ingredient. It really is the destination not the journey (most of the time.)
Airlines need to understand that the traveler will have the power or the choice. Either you cater to them or they will make other choices. Streamline the process and experience of Grandma getting to visit her grandchildren or she will stay home. The airline that makes it easiest for families with small kids to travel to Disney World will win. Not because they are better at flying, but because people want to follow the path of least resistance to the experience of Disney World.
Airlines compete on price. Why don't they compete on features like everyone else? Delta, you take families. United, you take baby boomers. American, you take seniors. Southwest, Jet Blue, Midwest Express, you take niche markets. We know what an airline for seniors looks like (see Geezer Air post below.) What does an airline for families look like?
-Clean Strollers and luggage carts everywhere. (Parents leave yours at home-move faster)
-Booster "car" seats built-in to plane seats. (Parents leave yours at home-move faster)
-Baby/child friendly bathrooms on planes and at gates. (Kids gotta go)
-In flight entertainment systems designed for kids and parents. (Something to do)
-Edutainment materials/exhibits about flying at gates. (Channel curiosity and fear to excitement)
-Special services designed to cater to children traveling alone. (Divorce is a fact. Lots of kids need to travel alone safely)
-A schedule that goes where families go when they go there. (Disney, Yellowstone, Ski-slopes, Europe, etc.)
This isn't difficult. Just watch families in airports and wonder if features like these would be enough incentive for them to pick a family friendly airline over a generic price based airline. People will pay for ease and convenience.
Cruise ships have designed their experiences to attract a particular market. Time for airlines to do the same.
It's gonna be a great future.