Customer Omega for the airlines

If there ever was a tipping point for an industry, headed down, surely the airline industry has reached that unfortunate metaphor. They’re fucked and their passengers with them.

On NPR this morning, I heard an old lady in a wheelchair forced to come to the airport to change her canceled American tickets — she wasn’t allowed to do it online or on the phone, not even after she said she was disabled and her daughter had seven children and a newborn and couldn’t take her to the O’Hare’s hell.

She is Customer Omega, the last screwed consumer.

You simply can’t treat people this way and survive. We all hate the airlines. We hate the experience on the plane and in the airport. We should fear for our safety, given American’s shoddy (and, one wonders, fraudulent) maintenance work. (As the Times said this morning, at least the FAA is doing its job.) The airlines never see themselves as our advocates, friends, servers; no, they are our prison wardens and enemies as they fight down legislation that mandates they should give us the crudest amenities a prisoner would get: clean water, air, and a toilet. The economics of the industry as it is being run today are unsustainable. And apart from the all-business-class airlines I try to fly every time I can (Eos, Silverjet, and there are more coming), there is not one visible bit of innovation — not one attempt to get out of this mess — visible in the industry.

Here are a few of my earlier posts thinking about a different future for the airlines. See also Chris Anderson on a new, free business model. What would you do to bring this industry back from the cliff? I think the essence of their future is there: They have to explore new value by having a decent relationship with us, using that new value to improve the experience so they can have a decent relationship. Screwing your customers is the least sustainable business model.

  • fasd

    fine . use your billion dollars you make off buzzmachine and star your own airline

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  • Bennett

    …what you see is a massive & predictable failure of the economic ‘government-regulation-model’.

    The U.S. airline industry is one of the most heavily government controlled/regulated industries in America, and has been since the 1920’s.
    Every aspect of aircraft, flight & maintenance personnel, and operations is closely regulated by government bureaucrats and politicians.
    They also directly operate all commercial airports, the entire air traffic control system, and the wonderful TSA security-theater. Fair competition from new or foreign airline companies is severely restricted by the U.S. government. Suspension of government retail price-fixing of airfares in the 1970’s was the only bright spot in the dismal history of airline regulation.

    Blame the noble government “regulators” that you place so much faith in. They always & everywhere make a total mess of things.

  • chico haas

    Rotten story about the disabled person.

    To those who fly a lot, business travellers, only one thing matters: Is the plane here?

    On-time departures is the key amenity. Efficient operations, weather permitting, is the real customer service. I’ll take that over social networking on a late flight.

    But I agree that everything else that blows about the “air travel experience” points to seven years of TSA. Wish someone would up-tech that.

  • Paul

    I don’t think the airlines are screwed or in danger of going out of business. Currently outside a few small markets there is no viable alternative to flying. Secondly the Federal government won’t let them fail. They will use some excuse and bail them out yet again.

    The only thing we might be able to hope for is better FAA oversight and a passanger bill of rights from the Congress.

  • http://www.brunoandtheprofessor.com Frank

    The market will bifurcate, as Jeff suggests. The rich will fly really nice, expensive airlines or move to fractional ownership of jets or other such services. And the rest of us will be stuck with the 21st-century equivalent of the Greyhound Bus.

    Come to think of it, that’s actually not fair to Greyhound. At least they’re on time usually.

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  • http://erasend.blogspot.com robert

    I would argue the FAA didn’t do their job. The problems that American is having is evidence of a long term issues that haven’t been addressed nor forced to address. Problems that apparently the FAA turned a blind eye to until they no longer could. If the FAA had been doing their job then entire time, the planes would have recieved their regular maintenance, problems would have been found and an entire fleet wouldn’t need an overhaul. No the FAA failed and the press spreading a false myth without really questioning it is very dangerous.

  • Greg

    Terrible article. The FAA is trying to look like they are doing “something big” in helping safety, what they are doing is destroying revenue in an industry where it is hard to find. It is all about CYA. As for service at airlines their hands are tied by a “deregulated industry” policy, but a government that does everything it can to regulate the main participants (established airlines) from a politically expedient point of view to their constituents (ie cheap flights).

  • http://hotelhallways.blogspot.com misterarthur

    Let them eat cake, eh, Jeff? Your luxo-liners may be fine for your international-all-expenses-paid speeches, but it doesn’t do the rest of us any good trying to get from Detroit to Memphis.

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  • http://fatherdaughtertalk.blogspot.com montag

    Airlines attempted to be “fast-food” transportation. That goal is impossible now, and if it was possible in the past, it was so only because we ignored the wasteful use of fuel, the damage to the environment, and the impact on people living by airports.

    We let rail decay and threw money at roads and air. Now the cost of fuel is jeopardizing road traffic (trucking) and air, but the rail system is non-existent, practically speaking.

    At this point, judging from the past, I expect the Department of Transportation to be turned into a Mega-department and a Transportaion Czar appointed.
    The Czar will mention biofuels and their importance in his opening speech and the only transport thereafter will be to hell in wicker handbaskets.

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  • http://srwu.net Dylan

    I’ve officially grown tired of you, Jeff. Your constant need to insert yourself in the guise of “corporate watchdog/soothsayer” has grown tiresome. You are unsubscribed.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Dylan,
    Bye-bye now. Bye-bye.

  • nick

    Ace of Spades blog reports that this whole imbroglio had to do with the spacing of wire ties that secured wiring in the wheel wells of the md 80. Seems to me that FAA used afar heavier hand to enforce the inspection than was necessary. The Faa mandated 12 wire ties per foot at 1″ spacing, but the md 80 spacing was 1.25″ or about 10 wire ties per foot. Not being an engineer but having a modicum of common sense and having looked at a photo of the offending wiring job there doesn`t seem tobe an imminent threat to safety. Your`e only talking about a difference of 2 ties per foot and 10 is probably sufficient. I don`t know how they came up with the requirement of 1″ spacing other than the possibility it just makes it easier to confirm the spacing with a ruler.
    FAA could have enforced the rule by spacing out the mandatory inspections over a short period of time with minimal disruptions and backing it up with hefty fines for non compliance.
    After all FAA gave them 18 months to comply with the inspections why not extend it out afew more months, but, this time put some teeth in the enforcement instead of turning everbody`s day miserable.
    link to MSNBC story.
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24029455/

  • Wilbur W

    Nick’s got it right. (Or at least, he’s closer than anybody in the media has gotten.) The Airworthiness Directive in question called for a teflon sleeve to be slipped over a 4-foot-long cable carrying power to a standby pump in the wheel well of MD-88 aircraft. The ties referred to were to be attached every ‘1.0-inch’ to keep the teflon sleeve cinched up. American Airlines let their spacing go over that. (There were some other issues with clamp orientation and teflon tape overlap, but this was the biggie.) Did this variation actually affect safety of flight? No. Would it have endangered the public to give American ten days to correct it, if/when found, instead of putting the airplane on the ground instantly? No. But the FAA were terrified that, if they showed any flexibility at all, Cong. Oberstar would have them up in front of his committee, yelling at them on the Six O’Clock news for trying to murder widows and orphans. So hundreds of airplanes were grounded and tens of thousands of passengers were inconvenienced. Your gov’t. at work.

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