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.

  • I haven’t looked for one, but why not create a venue where people can describe their dream ____________? Could be airline, could be mortgage company, could be dentist. Let people collectively brainstorm what could be, instead of just collectively complaining about what isn’t. Business plans by customers, rather than by an executive or two.

    If such a venue already exists, what is it?

  • “It’s hard to imagine an industry… that is less open to openness … But if you simply turn around and ask how customers would run these companies..The problem is that…it’s not a competitive marketplace.”

    Jeff, Sounds like a good description of journalism during the decades of dominance by government-licensed/regulated broadcasters and one-newspaper towns. It IS all about competition, and our news is now getting much better because of it. So let’s start thinking about how to get airports out of the hands of those who thwart competition — municipal politicians who control airports, federal TSA agents who engage in acts of theater and not security, and FAA bureaucrats who select the industry’s winners and losers. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • Eric Norlin

    We were just discussing this morning over breakfast (after yet another horrible flying experience yesterday) — we haven’t had an incident-free flight in the last 6 times we’ve flown.

    I think the real first step is to open up a bidding system for flight slots at the airports — ie, deregulate the system that is choking the arrival/departure schedules and *begin* to let the market sort itself out.

    bottom line: if we had centralized regulation of the internet, it would never work — and so it is for airlines as well. Of course heading in that direction will mean failed airlines and travel chaos until the market sorts itself out. But that is *precisely* what is needed, as the airlines right now have absolutely NO REASON to listen to their “customers.” Failure is the only thing that will eventually cause them to hear us.

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  • Amen, Jeff. This echoes — much more eloquently — a rant I made the other day, so I linked to this on my own blog.

    I keep saying that someday, somewhere, *somebody* inside the business is going to figure this out, and they’re going to take everybody else’s lunch money for a long, long time. I don’t know when or how they’ll do it (I guess I’d be an airline mogul otherwise, eh?), but I’m sure someone will. This kind of disconnect between suppliers and customers is *so* egregious that it calls out for an entrepreneurial solution.

  • Ah Jeff, that nail was hit firmly on the head. I just flew chicken coup class between London and San Francisco so tell me – what’s the secret of being upgraded?!

  • Thing that kills me is that this captivity time, or dwell time as they call it, provides them a rich opportunity for advertising.

  • ian

    The problem with the airlines is that they have no incentive to set realistic schedules. So, they book, say, 60% more flights than Newark Airport can handle. The flights stack up. They can have people stack up in the planes on the tarmac, or in the terminal, which won’t have enough room.

    AND they use smaller planes, ’cause they’re cheaper to operate. Larger planes would relieve a lot of the congestion. But again, what do they care? They don’t pay for the traffic controllers, or the lateness. They pay a tax on each passenger, not on each plane.

    They are the perfect example of the Tragedy of the Commons.

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  • Oh come on, Jeff. You write: “Air travel may be the first industry based on a business model of kidnapping and imprisonment.”

    Couldn’t you have made your point without that style of inflammatory, over-the-top rhetoric?

    The airlines are America’s favorite punching bag — not entirely without reason; they are, for the most part, noncommunicative fortresses. But they are not nearly as evil as people make them out to be. As for those stories of passengers trapped on tarmacs for hours at a time, they are certainly the rare exception in a system that sees more than 30,000 daily departures.

    If you’re interested, here are a few articles I wrote on flight delays, as seen from the inside…

    Anatomy of a delay…

    “Passenger Bill of Rights” and other bad ideas…

    The art and science of weather delays…

    At the same time, the poster above is correct about carriers scheduling too many departures at airports that cannot handle them, and portioning their overal capacity into smaller and smaller planes operating more and more flights. Here’s a pair of columns I wrote on that topic…

    Congestion and chaos, part 2. RJs and regional airlines

    How the airlines’ schedules are killing you.

    Best regards,
    Patrick Smith

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  • A different perspective – some folks not only expect the delays et. al. but actually have learned to take advantage of the alone time it provides. I see people doing work on laptops, writing, etc. Myself, I do my best thinking on a plane. I’ll read the latest on innovation and creativity and for whatever reason my mind works like gangbusters on that delayed, cramped plane – far better than it would at home or the office.

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  • “…some folks not only expect the delays et. al. but actually have learned to take advantage of the alone time it provides.”

    Say what??

    Well then here’s hoping I get stuck in rush hour traffic later today so I have time to return my voice mail messages.

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  • Yours is an interesting perspective, and limited.

    Try to relax and appreciate the miracle of modern air travel.

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