No, These 3 Simple Ideas Won’t Revolutionize Air Travel

A few weeks ago an article was going around, ‘3 radical ideas to totally disrupt air travel’. I’ve seen it half a dozen times again today in my Facebook feed and have had three people send it to me as well. So I figured I’d take a look.

Recently at the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) conference, Teague principal brand strategist Devin Liddell presented the company’s radical concept for Poppi, an idealized, modern airline. “Our scenario was, what if we created a startup airline, in the mode of Airbnb or Uber?” Liddell explains. “If we started an airline from scratch, what would we do?”

It turns out though that the ideas aren’t so revolutionary – or great – after all.

  • Prohibiting carryon bags
  • Allowing passengers to resell their seats and tickets
  • Giving out surprise and delight items to passengers stuck in a middle seat

Make the Middle Seat Passenger Feel Special is Plausible

While I love the idea of perhaps giving an amenity kit to middle seat passengers, especially on longer flights, to make that passenger feel special — or perhaps comping a drink or a buy on board meal — it does come at a cost and it’s not obvious that such a move would engender enough value to be warranted from an airline’s perspective.

For the most part passengers stuck in middle seats are buying on price only. Frequent travelers rarely wind up in middle seats. To the extent that an airline’s best customers get stuck with middle seats, the airline should be doing a better job blocking more desirable coach seats for last-minute assignment to displaced elites and full fare last minute purchasers.

Here’s the argument:

Make the middle seat feel exclusive as a “promotional class.” Invite companies like Uniqlo, Nike, or Adidas to take that seat over—paying airlines for the privilege of a captive audience—while the corporations woo passengers with a special gift box or experience.

“It makes the middle seat less sucky,” Liddell says. “I’m not in the aisle or the window, but maybe I’m in the Xbox middle seat, so I get to play prerelease games.”

Of course if there’s a merchandising opportunity there (which makes the middle seat giveaway ‘free’) then the opportunity exists whether the value is captured by the middle seat passenger or the airline. Still, something like this could be a way to make merchandising – tray table, seat back, or overhead bin (cough) advertising more palatable. Airlines might be able to capture revenue without cheapening the product by re-investing a portion in the product, and the investment would be magnified if only one-third of coach passengers saw the benefit (and giving it to coach passengers might feel ‘fair’ to others).

Eliminating Carryons is a Very Bad Idea

Somehow there’s a belief that customers carry bags onto a plane because checking them costs money — even though elite business travelers disproportionately carry on and don’t pay checked bag fees and even though there were carrypons on planes long before first checked bag fees were invented.

Nobody wants to spend $25 to check a bag. And as a result, we’ve all shouldered the anxiety of wondering, “Will all the overhead bins be filled?” while we suffer through the painfully slow boarding times of modern air travel.

“The answer to the problem is right in front of us,” Liddell says. “The answer is not to have bags at all in the cabin. You can have personal items, your jacket, your computer bag, but having luggage that should be checked in the cabin is totally broken.”

Now I love the open cabin feeling of no overhead bins as much as the next first class award passenger on Cathay Pacific.

Cathay Pacific 777 First Class Cabin

Cathay Pacific 747 First Class Cabin, How I Miss Her…

But the author seems to think that airlines primarily allow carryon bags so they can collect checked bag fees. That’s completely wrong. Some airlines even charge for carryon bags, so there’s no reason why revenue models couldn’t adapt.

Carryon bags don’t get lost (unless you leave them behind yourself), and let you get out of the airport quicker. The reason to carry on a bag isn’t just to save on checked bag fees. Indeed prior to 9/11 you could carry two full bags onto a plane, it was reduced to one by the TSA to limit bags going through the security checkpoint.

Ban carryon bags, and you don’t just have to wait 25-plus minutes at baggage claim — which for a weekly flyer taking roundtrips amounts to 43 hours a year, more than a work week — but you also have to check in for your flight earlier. Call it an additional 15 minutes at the airport each direction. That’s another 26 hours per person per year. So 69 extra hours a year.

Let’s look at the cost another way. There are approximately 780,000,000 revenue passenger enplanements per year. If one quarter of those shifted to have to check bags, and that took an extra 40 minutes per trip (15 minutes on the front end and 25 on the back end) that’s an extra 130 million hours wasted.

Airline passengers have much higher than average incomes. Let’s assume $50 per hour (it’s actually higher than this). That’s lost value of $6.5 billion per year.

What’s actually a better idea is bigger bins so there’s no problem fitting everything, Alaska Airlines has installed these new bins that allow them to almost double capacity. Boarding and deplaning is faster because there’s enough space, passengers don’t spend time trying to find space, and they aren’t jumping around rows to find their bags when they’re deplaning.

If you banned carryon bags, you’d have to raise the price of checked bags or place hard limits on the number of bags checked — because space for those bags isn’t unlimited. Indeed, there are hard limits placed by some airlines on some routes (especially Latin American routes seasonally) now. Ban carryons and those constraints only get exacerbated.

Airlines Don’t Allow Reselling Tickets Because It Undermines Their Revenue Models

The author suggests ‘Amazon Prime’ memberships that lock consumers into a single airline for the year. They have those in a way in frequent flyer programs, and United sells annual access to their economy plus seating that does the same thing. So does their co-brand credit card relationship, a $95 fee usually for special perks that get amortized across flights taken throughout the year. There are no doubt other experiments that could be run but it’s hardly a new concept.

A key attribute mentioned here is the ability to resell sets.

Airlines don’t create marketplaces to resell your seats because they don’t have a single fixed price for each seat. They want to capture the arbitrage value, rather than leaving reselling profits to the secondary marketplace.

Remember also that airlines don’t create a marketplace to buy and sell each others’ seats when a flight is overbooked because anything that happens close to departure slows down a flight and that’s expensive (and would mitigate the argument the author makes for eliminating checked bag fees, which is faster boarding).

The other idea here is to allow reselling undesirable seats. You might take that middle or window and give up your aisle for $20 for instsance.

However if you’re stuck in an undesirable seat, sign up for an Expert Flyer free seat alert to watch for a better one to open up on your flight (for instance, when an elite traveler gets upgraded closer to departure).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Idea that would revolutionize air travel? Figure out a way to get 100 people into a metal tube, seated, and the tube moved a couple thousand feet in less than 45 minutes. The majority of my flights out of DCA spend more time boarding than they do in the air.

  2. I saw the same article. Eliminating carry-ons and ticket resales are both insane ideas. Regarding the middle seat, I have long said that as they redesign seats (and especially as they squeeze more in), they could lessen the downside of the middle seat by making an inch wider than the others and then advertising that fact. That creates an “upside” to each seat, instead of the middle just being the loser.

  3. I agree reselling seats is a horrific concept. It would lead to a huge scalping market place and tons of speculative bookings + spoilage.

  4. Passengers in middle seats are also comprised of families traveling together – and sometimes also groups of friends (think Spring Break). Those individuals aren’t upset about being in the middle seat.

    I know a few friends who are ambivalent about what seat they’re in, provided it’s not next to or in between someone with BO or whatever. I once was assigned a middle seat in the back of a 757 on NW due to a last minute work travel need, and was upset about it…until I boarded and ended up sitting in between two members of a college girls track team!

  5. The “no carry-ons” idea is just silly as you point out in the article. I actually think it is comical that one of the benefits of status is early boarding. The last thing I want is to be on the plane longer than everyone else (especially for an international flight), so the real benefit of early boarding is knowing that there will be room for your carry-on. But that is only a solution for a problem that the airlines have knowingly created (limited carry-on space).

    The perk I would prefer is to stay in the lounge and be one of the last to board, but with the knowledge that there is room near my seat for my carry-on bag.

  6. Gary—the other aspect of carry-ons is that they are *necessary* for valuables, such as electronics or jewelry. If someone’s traveling for a long trip, they’ll want to pack camera gear. Checking that in is an absolute no-no.

    So, the idea of eliminating carry-ons is idiotic and a nonstarter. “Luckily,” the airlines know this.

    Looking forward to the Space bins (with the one caveat that they do mean the ceiling on those planes is a bit lower). I hope other airlines, in addition to Alaska, start adopting them.

  7. Interesting stuff, and I was beaming contentedly after reading it, ready to nod off with visions of unicorns and rainbows dancing in my head. Then I remembered airlines are generating more than $3 billion US in annual revenue from baggage fees, and probably don’t consider the current system broken. Anyway, your link in the 780,000,000 million revenue passengers sentence led me to a page indicating passenger load factor ran 86 percent capacity in July while ton mile load factor was only 65 percent. Unless I misunderstand this, it means the cargo bins are one third empty as it is. There is no luggage crisis. There is a revenue model crisis.

  8. Putting ads in the middle seat does not feel premium to me. On the contrary. Also, creating any kind of extra value for less desirable seats is not a great customer experience, and would probably affect sales. Customers prefer simple choices (better quality for more money or less quality for less money). If you make them choose between mutually exclusive benefits at a same price point, a lot of them would simply abandon the purchase process and not come back.

  9. I prefer to carryon always. Making the dimensions of the carryon smaller? That’s OK, but force me to check bags and I’ll fly with another carrier.

    Make the center coach seats slightly wider, more pitch or
    recline. And don’t put lipstick on a pig with advertising or comps. It’s still a crummy seat selection until it fundamentally changes.

    I’d love to see a start-up
    initiate the resale of its
    tickets if only to watch how it unfolds, but I doubt the
    government /TSA would
    allow it.

  10. I also love the middle seat idea that either airlines will pay the middle seat person money or that marketers will give away a trinket to everyone on the middle seat with no thought about how expensive that is. Think about it this way, there are about 20,000 commercial flights per day in the US. Assume 150 coach seats on average, and you have 1,000,000 middle seats every day of every year. Even at $1 pp, that would be an awfully large marketing budget…

  11. Reducing (not eliminating) carry-ons is the only winner here. Fly a bit in Asia and you learn how with such a policy (or customer behaviour) airlines can load a 100% full A320 starting at T-20 minutes and depart on time, and a full A330 starting at T-25.

    The win-win is for airlines to charge $50 for large carryons and give the first checked bag free. For those who care (very important people carrying lots of very important stuff) $50 is chump change; for everyone else the free checked bag service is good enough. The airline wins with more revenue and far shorter turnaround times (even more important), the very important people win as they don’t have to board early to find space for their very important carry ons, and everyone else wins as they have a far better travel experience than the current crummy one.

    And everyone gets to fly in a far safer plane, as all that weight in the overhead of U.S. airlines will maim people in case of an accident.

  12. No carry-ons? Not until the airlines have an iron-clad guarantee of 100% security for all checked bags.

    Not holding my breath.

  13. As for economy middle seat – why not have a layout that would allow the middle seat to at least angle-lie flat? Combine that with NZ skycouch on certain rows.

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