Friday, August 16, 2002

The airlines have it all wrong. According to an "airline consultant" quoted in this article on boston.com, "[airlines] have to do something to get the price up," to return to profitability. Wrong. What they need is to fill planes. The problem has not been the low prices, but the lack of ridership that is causing airlines to lose money. The article claims that airlines have lowered prices to entice passengers, that the strategy has failed, so now the airlines are going to try to squeeze more money out of fewer passengers. You just have to wonder if it has occurred to these airlines that there are things other than money that affect people's choices. Ask five people why they don't fly more often, and you'll probably get five different responses. These might include "ticket prices change every 5 minutes," "it takes too long to go through security," "you have to arrive at the gate an hour beforehand and then sit around waiting," "flights are often late," or "all they feed me on a three-hour lunchtime flight is a pack of peanuts and a Coke." All of these are valid complaints, and none of them have to do with money. Sure, a devil's advocate would say, "but if you make the flights cheap enough, people will suck it up and fly anyway." Maybe, but prices can only get so low. And it often takes a lot of money to compensate someone for aggravation and waiting.

So, what's the solution? Well, it should be obvious from the complaints I listed above. Make the experience of flying, from ticket purchasing to landing, more pleasant, and you'll see more people flying. Seriously, compare the following two scenarios:


  1. You decide that next month, you will fly from Boston to Cincinnati to visit your family. You log on to your favorite travel web site, such as Travelocity, and search for lowest fares leaving Friday afternoon and returning Sunday. The lowest fare is $159 round-trip. Not bad. Oh, but the times are horrible and there's a one-and-a-half hour layover in Pittsburgh. OK, search around a little more. OK, there's a fare for $199 at a better time of day. So, you decide to keep that in mind and talk to your wife. A few hours later, over dinner, you mention the fare and she agrees that it's a good deal. You log on to Travelocity and search for the flight. What? The lowest fare is now $259! And that's not even at a convenient time! Still, you really want to see your family, so you decide to suck it up.

    The Friday of the trip arrives, and even though your flight isn't until 7:00 p.m., you have to leave work at 4:30 to get to the airport at 5:00, providing you enough time to get through security at Logan and still check in by 6:00. After standing in line at security forever, since the 30-gate terminal only has two security checkpoints, you get to the gate at 5:45, and there's no one there to check people in. You grab a slice of pizza at Sbarro's and then sit around until 6:15, when someone finally arrives at the gate, and you stand in line again to check in and get your boarding pass. At 6:45, they finally begin "pre-boarding" the flight, allowing 5 first-class passengers and a 10-year-old child to skip ahead of the line and board first. Then they finally open up general boarding, at which point you get on the plane, and sit there until 7:20 (20 minutes late) when the plane leaves the gate.

    In the air, you get a cup of soda and a little bag of pretzels, and you really wish you had bought two slices of pizza at Sbarro's. After the plane lands in Pittsburgh, you file out, spend 10 minutes walking across the terminal to your connecting flight, and sit around waiting again to repeat the boarding process. As long as you're waiting, you mention to the attendant at the gate that your frequent-flyer mileage number isn't on the tickets, indicating that you aren't getting credit for the flight. There's nothing she can do, though, because the nation's biggest airline doesn't have the capacity to look up your frequent flyer ID number from the computers at the gate.

    Finally, you board the flight to Cincinnati, sit around waiting some more, get another Coke and another small bag of the same pretzels, and make it to your destination. As you leave the terminal with your carry-on bags, you breathe a sigh of relief that you didn't have to check any baggage.

  2. You decide that next month, you will fly from Boston to Cincinnati to visit your family. You log on to your favorite travel web site, such as Travelocity, and search for lowest fares leaving Friday afternoon and returning Sunday. You discover that for the dates you plan to travel, there are two fares available: $179 for off-peak times and $239 for on-peak times. You talk to your wife at dinner, decide that you're willing to spend the extra money to travel on-peak, and you go back online that evening and buy the tickets.

    On the Friday of the trip, you leave your office at 5:00 so that you can make it to the airport by 5:30, ample time to get through security, pick up some dinner, and check in. You decide to check in before eating to avoid the line that will form closer to flight time, so you go to the gate, hand over your e-ticket confirmation and ID, and get a boarding pass. You then go and enjoy a leisurely slice of pizza at Sbarro's. You arrive back at the gate in time for boarding, and the plane leaves the gate a few minutes after 7:00.

    On the plane, you get a Coke and a package of cookies. You wish you'd had 2 slices of pizza, but at least the Oreos are good, and they're more filling than those mini pretzels. In Pittsburgh, you make your way to the gate and inquire about your frequent flyer ID number, but they look it up in the computer based on your last name, and enter in the information so that you'll get credit for your whole round-trip flight.

    On the flight to Cincinnati, you get another Coke and a packaged danish - not quite as good as the Oreos, but not bad. Arriving in Cincinnati, you head down to baggage claim to pick up the large duffel you checked. A couple minutes after you arrive at the baggage claim, the belt starts moving and the bags start coming out. Within about 5 or 10 minutes, all the bags are out (including yours), and you grab your duffel and head off to see your family.

    Clearly scenario 2 is a lot more pleasant than scenario 1. And, maybe I'm just ignorant, but it really seems like it shouldn't be that difficult or expensive for the airlines to move from one to the other. And there is evidence to support this. For example, some airports (BWI, for example) have very efficient security checkpoints. Since the security is hired by the airlines at each airport, this is something the airlines could really improve. Another example is Southwest Airlines, which in spite of its low fares, somehow manages to have someone at the gate for check-in 90 minutes before each flight. Southwest also has a pretty efficient boarding system. As for snacks, a package of six Oreos couldn't cost more than 20 cents or so more than a little bag of pretzels, but think how much more people would enjoy it (they could have a variety of choices instead of just Oreos, for those who inexplicably don't like Oreos).

    I really think that the airlines are barking up the wrong tree. If you want to get passengers, then make people want to fly because of how easy and comfortable it is. The harder it is, the longer people have to wait, and the more confusing the ticket prices, the less people are willing to fly.

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