The air travel rant

Note, this is a fairly superficial rant. Don’t tell me that it isn’t an in-depth analysis of the transport industry, I know!

Air travel is stuck in the 1960s. Not the planes. The planes have evolved greatly but the airlines, the service offering, and the experience are stuck in the ’60s

The airlines
Why do airlines still exist? Or rather why are the plane operators still so visible to the customer? Buying travel from an airline is like buying energy directly from a company that runs power stations.

Running planes is, for all practical purposes, a commodity service. Safety is governed by regulations and the economics are better the fewer and larger the planes. Aviation would be better run by commodity carriers.

The airports
Airports really like you leaving and shopping. They have glorious departure halls, usually filled with shopping malls selling goods unrelated to travel. Shopping is usually the last thing I want to do when leaving, not least because I’ve packed and checked my bags and don’t want to carry extra stuff on my trip.

Airports provide a miserable experience when arriving, and for the most part while transiting. The two most useful services they could provide, showers and short-stay rooms, aren’t there. Transportation to the city is difficult, and they dump you on the kerb, so to speak, to figure it out. And they don’t let you go shopping on your way home.

The travel offering
UPS has the right idea. If I want to send a thing from my home to someone’s office I ring them up, give them the origin and destination addresses, and they pick up and deliver the thing door to door.

If I want to get myself to the same place, it’s much more complicated. For a start, nobody sells the whole trip. The airline will sell me a trip from one airport to another. Well guess what: I don’t live at an airport, and I pretty much never want to travel to one.

I’m on a business trip to Japan right now, and this relatively simple trip involves two taxis, two flights, two trains, and three airports (each way). Thanks to market distortion the two flights are from the same company, but the rest are all different providers. I’m forced to buy the flights together, but all the other segments separately. What’s so special about flights?

By focusing on flights airlines fail to optimize transport end to end. Were EDI-CDG-NRT really the best airports for this trip? How about LHR-HND with trains at both ends? How about connecting in Moscow or Helsinki – they seem to be more favorably located. But the fixation on airlines hides those options. They are too difficult for me to arrange, too uncomfortable to take, or priced out of reach.

If instead of buying flights from airlines I could buy travel from a sensible door-to-door travel company I’d be buying the product I actually wanted. Then they could offer various levels of choice. I could take the “I don’t care, just figure it out” option, I could choose by metrics such as flight and stopover durations, or I could tweak all the details.

The main thing though is that if I’m buying door-to-door travel the travel company can optimize the whole trip, just as UPS can optimize its shipments. They can add train segments or stops at hotels. I don’t care, so long as someone is minding all the details and ensuring a certain level of comfort.

The booking process
Airlines are stuck on some 1960s idea of selling seats on scheduled flights between airports that nobody actually wants. Everyone wants to go from some street address to another street address within some range of dates. You can tell UPS this but you can’t tell an airline. The airline doesn’t even see your searches for travel between locations where they don’t already fly!

A sensible booking process would let you indicate the trip you want, door to door, dates, comfort level, and optionally a cash bid. The system could then offer you already priced travel, or take your bid and use it, along with everyone else’s bids, to adjust capacity. There would be no scheduled flights to fill. Larger or smaller aircraft would get allocated as needed to fulfill pre-priced and bid-for travel as efficiency as possible.

The travel experience
The airlines have their heads in the clouds when it comes to the travel experience. They think they control it, but for normal people on normal budgets (that means economy) evidently they don’t. My travel experience depends at least as much on the aircraft type, the airport, the security officials, and the ground transport as it does on the airline. The bit that is up to the airline is the most boring and least differentiated of all.

Because airlines realize this, but are stuck on this idea of selling you seats on flights, they try to make the “sitting and flying” experience as fancy as possible. They also invented lounges, so they can control your “waiting in airport” experience. This results in ostentatious service for a few premium customers and a glum travel experience for nearly everyone. Here’s what travel should be like instead:

You check in your bag at welcome centers in town the night before your flight, if you wish. Alternatively you are picked up at home or at the welcome center about an hour before your trip. The travel company gives you a device that explains your itinerary and chaperons you through. You clear security at the welcome center, and your bags are taken care of until you get to your home or hotel room at the other end.

You get taken by coach or by train to an airport. Since we’re integrating transportation means, this could be a long trip. For example it could be a trip by high-speed train to a major airport hundreds of kilometers away. Airports could be built further from cities. Train stations and routes would need to be adapted accordingly. The airport doesn’t need to be as high profile as it is now, since your point of contact is the welcome center. Instead of having a big check-in hall, it’s train-to-plane. The airport also has short-stay rooms and restaurants to improve your transit experience.

The plane is laid out sensibly, which means seating a bit more spacious than economy, so you can shift and use a laptop, in a single class. Long flights could have premium seating such as recliners or beds, but since aviation is a commodity these are designed for comfort rather than for the illusion of luxury. There Is no meal. Airline food is really bad for you, and the plane isn’t a good place for eating. Technology permitting, the plane should offer internet and power rather than a boring selection of movies and magazines. In some of the space previously filled by first class seats they could put a refreshment stand and a treadmill.

The overall duration of the trip will most likely be longer, since part of the idea is to save the environment by creating efficient flights. Instead of a short hop and a very long intercontinental flight you’d be more likely to get two flights of similar length, with a more restful stop in the middle.

When you land you arrive at a pleasant lobby and get a chance to shower or rest for a few hours. This makes stopovers more pleasant, and lets you start your day refreshed at your final destination – especially if your flight arrives too early. You are then driven home or to your hotel, or if you prefer you get dropped off at the welcome center in town, which also functions as a visitor’s center. At that point you return your chaperone mobile device.

Competition and branding
OK, who thinks that competition and branding works well in the current airline system? The airline industry manages to be at the same time anti-competitive, filled with arbitrary and distorted pricing, and hyper-competitive to the point that good airlines regularly face bankruptcy. Airlines desperately try to market and distinguish themselves, yet for the vast majority of customers they have no differentiation. Through the wonders of market segmentation, the actual “sitting and flying” experience is overdone for some and below par for nearly everyone.

I’m proposing commodity aviation to recognize that it already is that. Treating the planes generally as commodities will help differentiate when they’re not. For example you could set preferred aircraft types without the complication of which airline flies them.

In this system the door-to-door travel companies become the new stars, and they compete on global reach and overall customer service. There are more opportunities to differentiate outside the aircraft cabin than in it. They’d generally brand the ground side of their service, especially their welcome centers, stopovers, and town transport. I’d expect leading logistics and service companies, rather than aviation companies, to dominate.

It would still be possible for the travel service companies to brand sections of the aircraft, trains, or the airports and stations. This would look less like exclusive service and more like competing coffee shops with their branded seating. Branding one aircraft cabin with seating from three travel companies, say Accor, Virgin, and Easy aiming at different market segments would add some waste, but less than flying three planes on the same route.

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