Airlines: Imprisonment as a business model

Air travel may be the first industry based on a business model of kidnapping and imprisonment. It is the least open industry possible. You are trapped with the airline that controls your home airport or destination. And now, far worse, you are trapped in their planes for three to five hours. And why? Well, yes, we can blame weather and bad air-traffic control for some of this. But the essential reason is that that don’t want to let you loose and lose your fare. So they hold you captive. Amazingly, they are allowed it. And, of course, this yields just the amount of resentment and seething hatred it deserves. So no one thinks positively of the industry or the brands in it. It’s so bad that it’s making clearly inferior competitors — driving for hours, Amtrak, ferchrissakes, and maybe even soon the bus — look better. That’s bad. The entire industry and its relationship with its entire customer base is broken.

The attempted solutions so far are all nonsolutions: Attempts to regulate and limit our imprisonment — to still obviously unacceptable levels — have failed. Attempts to sue airlines into civility have not worked. Even the White House finally recognizes the problem but its solutions are aimed at reducing the flights that are already over subscribed; gee, that helps.

It’s time to turn the thinking around. If, for once, anyone in the industry or the government would think like a customer, the solution would be the reverse of imprisoning us in airplanes until they can take off:

Jets should not be boarded until they have a take-off — and landing — slot.

That leaves us, the passengers, free to walk around in the terminal — and, yes, free to seek competitive means of transport (other airlines, cars, trains) or to go home. In no sane world should we be held in captivity and prevented from that free choice. We would have the services of airports at hand — which, in the long run, would improve because there’d be business to be made there; demand for beers yields supply of beers (the mixed-nut marketplace shifts from the jet to the terminal). The airlines would compete to make us comfortable to keep us at their gates. The jets would not be sitting on runways burning incredible amounts of fuel and producing incredible amounts of carbon for hours on end. Onboard crews would not be stressed dealing with righteously angry customers. People might actually decide to fly more often. Oh, yes, this shifts some of the logistical burden of air travel from taxi and air traffic control to the terminals — fine. It also shifts the pain in this relationship from the powerless customer to the people who are in a position to fix the situation. If the airlines want to imprison us, they still have the tool of the nonrefundable ticket, though the market will in the long-run dictate whether we choose to pay for this discount with the risk of captivity.

It’s hard to imagine an industry — other than prisons themselves — that is less open to openness. It’s much easier to imagine how media, retail, consumer products, and entertainment can spawn Cluetrain companies. But if you simply turn around and ask how customers would run these companies, you will get an answer like mine, not like the industry’s or the government’s. The problem is that, deregulation aside, it’s not a competitive marketplace. It’s worse today than telecom. So it’s not as if one company can break away from the pack and think like its customers; it’s not in control of its relationship with us, end-to-end. How do we get from here to there?

The only thing that is new is our empowerment as customers on the internet. We can coalesce and gang up on the airlines. There is also market pressure. The horrid shoddiness of the mainstream airlines is just what has opened up the market for Eos, Silverjet, et al to offer independent, quality competition and take away the big airlines’ most profitable customers, who are all turning their backs and saying nya-nya-nya to their former wardens as they leave the prison gates. But, of course, that marketplace is limited. It’s a much bigger mess than that. And it won’t be cured until the industry starts thinking like its customers, which will only happen when the customers shout so loudly, now that we can, that the industry can’t help but hear.

In the end, the ability of companies to make a business by telling customers what they cannot do is over. It’s only a question of when and how it is replaced.

: I should add that when I flew to Austin this week to see Dell, my Continental flights were ontime both ways — though I saw a chart yesterday (can’t find it now) showing Continental as the current leader in passenger imprisonment. I was lucky to get a first-class upgrade both ways, which improves one’s outlook.