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).