Unbusinessy - title graphic 

Cartoon: budget aeroplane being loaded via a funnel

 Evil Innovation in the Airline Industry

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

While most companies adopt innovation to improve their products, better their services and make customers happier, the deranged CEOs of the US airline industry have a very different approach: they are innovating to make their products less pleasant and their customers miserable. They do this so that those miserable customers spend ridiculous sums of money on upgrades that make them a little less miserable.

I rediscovered this the other day when I tried to book a flight for my two young adult sons and me to fly to New York from Belgium. Sadly, my preferred airline for that route, Jet Airways, had the audacity to discontinue their Brussels to Newark service which is a crying shame; their economy class is bearable and business class is a treat.  As a result of Jet Airway's selfish decision, I had only one option for a direct flight: a US based airline. I won't mention their name as they are united among the many airlines that take the same, evil approach to innovation.

The Story

Knowing that only one airline now makes the non-stop journey from Brussels to Newark, I went to their web site, entered the relevant details into the form and found a range of prices from okay to surprisingly high for economy class seats. I clicked on the basic economy class seats which, at least, appeared to be upholstered and offer enough room for my legs if I wore tight fitting trousers.

However, on closer examination, I saw that we would be sitting at the back of the aeroplane, each of us in a different row and each of us squeezed between strangers, probably obese strangers who hadn't bathed in weeks. In addition, we'd have fewer channels of films and the headset would be caked with the cumulative ear wax of the previous cheap seat passengers.

Although it did not say so explicitly, the web site implied that the cabin staff would sneer at us disdainfully, spit in our drinks and dump our meals into our laps. In short, the web site made it absolutely clear that by buying a ticket from this airline, my sons and I would be uncomfortable, unloved and miserable.

But, as the web site reminded me, all hope was not lost. If I wanted marginally less miserable seats, I could simply spend another €150 per person per flight − or €900 (about US$1000) all together − and we would be a bit less miserable. 

Or, I could pay even more money for marginally better, "Premium Economy" seats.  But these would not actually be premium seats by any definition of the word. They would be the basic economy class seats of a few years ago, now called premium and costing two to three times as much as the cheap-shit economy seats for stingy people like me.

Innovating to Ruin Customer Experience

Stop and think a moment about what is going on here. Clearly, a lot of thought, investment and innovation has gone into making their customers feel as uncomfortable and unloved as possible, at least within the realms of international laws on aviation and crimes against humanity. The only purpose of this clever innovation is make us so miserable that we are willing to pay for marginally less miserable seats.

To get an idea of how twisted this is, imagine visiting a web shop to buy an iPhone. The cheapest iPhone is only €400, but when you read the fine print, you discover that for that price, a hired thug would uninstall some basic apps from your phone, drop it on the floor and rub the screen with sandpaper. However, for an additional €300, he would not sandpaper the screen or drop it on the floor, but he would uninstall apps. And, for another €150 he would not uninstall any apps. Instead, a motherly woman with soft hands would gently put your telephone into a box and ship it to you. In other words, the company would innovate and spend additional money to make you unhappy in hopes that it could get you to spend more.

This is what most US airlines are doing and, sadly, more and more airlines in other countries are emulating this twisted approach to innovation.

Budget Airlines Started It

This approach to stripping every element of human dignity from flying was pioneered by the budget airlines that have grown in popularity over the past decade or two. Ryan Air was an early enthusiast of stingy, demeaning practices, such as not having reclining seats, charging for any food or drink and cabin crew selling all kinds of stuff during the flight. This was sort of okay with Ryan Air and other budget airlines because that is all they are, budget airlines serving relatively short routes and cheap seats. And that's important. Being miserable for a couple of hours is very different from being miserable for eight hours.

But, I believe intentionally making customers miserable is a mistake for big carriers who presumably take some pride in their corporate image -- and who sell business class and first class seating which is where they earn their real money. Like many people who work internationally, I often fly business class for, well, business. But, I tend to fly economy for personal trips. If an airline has gone out of their way to make me miserable in economy class, then I am unlikely to choose them when I am flying business class. I know other regular business travellers think the same way.

Decomoditise Seating

Cartoon: man gets cheap flight by being duct-taped to landing gearI understand that the big challenge facing airlines is that economy seats have become a commodity. When people fly today, they tend to use one of the travel comparison web sites and select the cheapest option that does not involve 13 plane changes and a 17 hour layover in Damascus. It is only when they are deep in the booking process that passengers to be realise their seats will be only slightly better than being squeezed into a medium size bucket − or they can pay extra for tolerability.

However, it is lack of make your customers happy innovation that has allowed economy class airline seats to become a commodity. After all, there has been a lot of innovation in business class seating. Some 30 years ago, when I first flew business class, seats were basically wider versions of economy seating with more leg room.

Today, thanks to innovation, business class seats in some airlines are nifty pods with fully reclining seats, comparatively large screen entertainment centres and lots of storage space. First class, meanwhile, is a mini apartment in some airlines.

While it is not realistic to expect economy class seating to be that luxurious, this impressive innovation in business class demonstrates that it is possible to innovate an aeroplane seat. And when one of the big airlines realises this and comes up with a significantly better seat that still allows them to squeeze lots of people into every jet (and so maintain competitive pricing) they will be on to a real winner. People will start to choose that airline for the quality of the customer experience rather than the cheap price.

Now that wouldn't that be cool?


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