Unbusinessy




Cartoon: man duct-taped to aeroplane landing gear Evil Airline Innovation

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

While most companies adopt innovation to improve their products, better their and 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 teenaged sons and me to visit my mother in New Jersey. Sadly, my preferred airline for that route, Jet Airways, had the audacity to discontinue their Brussels to Newark service which made economy class bearable and business class a treat. As a result of Jet Airway's selfish decision, I had only one option for a direct flight: 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, clicked in the relevant details 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 and probably accidentally spill drinks on us when they flung the dinners at us. In short, the web site made it absolutely clear that by buying a ticket from this airline, I would be uncomfortable, unloved and miserable.

But, as the web site reminded me, if I wanted marginally less miserable seats, I could simple spend another €150 per person per flight − or €900 (about US$1000) all together and I would be a bit less miserable. 

Or, I could pay even more money for marginally better seats, making my through to Survivable Economy, Okay Economy, Economy Plus and finally, if memory serves, Economy Premium. But they would not actually be Premium seats. They would be the basic economy class seats of a few years ago.

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 us stingy 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 unhappy in order to motivate us to pay much more in order to have moderately better seats and marginally more leg room.

To get an idea of how twisted this is, imagine visiting a web shop to buy an iPhone. You see several price options for what appears to be the same phone. After clicking on the least expensive choice, you are informed that, for the price you have selected, a corporate thug would rub your telephone's screen with sandpaper. However, for an additional €300, he would not sandpaper the screen, but he would drop it on the floor. For another €150, a motherly woman with soft hands would gently put your telephone into a box and ship it to you. Basically, the company is spending additional money to make you unhappy with their product in hopes it will motivate you to pay more for a product that is not so terrible.

This is the current innovation model of a growing number of airlines. And it does not make sense. In the hyper-competitive airline market, a far better strategy would be to innovate to make all customers as comfortable and happy as possible at reasonable prices. That would lead to happier customers and repeat customers.

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.

But, I believe it is a mistake for big carriers who presumably take some pride in their corporate image and who also sell business class and first class seating which is where they earn their real money. It is a mistake for the simple reason that, when I have a choice of airlines, I am unlikely to choose one that has innovated to make me unhappy as a customer.

This matters more than the airlines may realise, particularly as I am a moderately frequent flyer and regularly fly business class when I am on business. Indeed, many business class and even first class passengers often fly economy as well. And, if an airline has made me miserable in economy class, I am unlikely to want to try out their business class, whereas if their economy class is bearable, then I am likely to choose them for flights when I am flying business class.

Moreover, when I meet other regular flyers, we often compare airline horror stories as well as recommendations.

Decomoditise Seating

I 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 they 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 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, business class seats in some airlines are nifty pods with fully reclining seats, a comparatively large screen entertainment centre 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 would be really cool innovating!

 

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