Google Air?

As I sit in SFO waiting to go to EWR, I’m seeing that Continental is taking a few good steps down the road to Googlification or at least transparency. When I check on the flight status, I can now see where the incoming equipment is and judge for myself how credible my departure time is. For years, I’ve asked gate agents for that information and now Continental is giving it to us. Yeah.

Also, the airline is publishing openly the list of stand-bys for seats and for business-class upgrades (using just three initials) so people know just where they stand. Now imagine that with this information, we passengers could start a marketplace around them: Maybe I can buy somebody’s upgrade or window seat.

On the way out to San Francisco, when I sat in Newark enduring the dreaded ATC delay (but the airline let me sit out that delay in the airport and not on the tarmac — and I tweeted my gratitude), I was using the Samsung-branded plugs (and also I tweeted my gratitude). Later, I found another tweeter saying that she had been sharing a power tower with me (which led to a sniggle from another tweeter) and wondering whether I was watching my name. I responded and said that I wish she’d said something. We missed each other until we both tweeted on the other end of the trip. Today, I saw her tweet about flying back to New York; I asked whether we were on the same flight; we weren’t, but I warned of more ATC delays today.

Now imagine that we have internet access on the plane and in the airport. So we could start a Twitter hashtag for every flight: #CO449. We can gather around that and meet each other, arrange to share cabs on the other end, get recommendations for restaurants and hotels and events, and maybe even manage that marketplace of seats.

That’s what I write about in the book, imagining the Googley airline. So that’s today’s 30 Days of WWGD snippet:

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In contemplating how to remake an airline with Googlethink, I had just about given up. What can one do with such a commodity service, particularly one that has deteriorated so badly? Air travel’s business model today is based on overselling seats, billing us for checking bags, charging for pillows and pretzels and just about everything they can think of but air, jamming planes to the point of torture, treating customers as prisoners who can be kept on runways for hours without the food and water an inmate is allowed, and withholding information—all the while raising prices. Google couldn’t fix that. No one could.

But then I applied Google rules about connections and the wisdom of crowds with Zuckerberg’s law of elegant organization and my own first law and asked how travelers on planes, trains, and ships or in hotels and resorts could be given more control (of anything but the cockpit, of course). And I wondered, what if passengers on a plane were networked? What if a flight became a social experience with its own economy?

Start here: Most of us are connected to the internet on the ground. Soon, we’ll be connected in the air as planes, like hotels, finally get wireless access (after earlier failed attempts). Wi-fi is good for airlines because they will have something new to charge us for and because it will keep passengers busy and perhaps less likely to grumble and revolt at delays (though we might just blog and Twitter every problem and indignity as it occurs). Once connected with the internet, passengers could connect with each other. It would be easy for the airlines—or passengers themselves—to set up chats and social networks around flights and destinations so we could hook up before and during a flight. We could organize to share cab rides once we land, saving each other money. We could ask fellow passengers for tips about restaurants, museums, and stores and ways to get around. If the wi-fi were reasonably priced and if there were electric plugs at our seats, we could also spend hours happily playing games with each other.

Back when the 747 was introduced, it was supposed to offer lounges where passengers could hang out together. That didn’t last long as every inch was soon crammed with revenue-producing seats. Lounges are supposedly set for a comeback in the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380 superjumbo jets. So imagine if in our onboard, online social network, we could find people we want to meet—colleagues going to the same conference, travelers with shared interests, future husbands and wives—and we could rendezvous in the lounge. The flight becomes a social experience.

I know this vision sounds far-fetched given our current experience of air travel. But play along. Socialization could be a key to decommodifying the airline. What if passengers chose to fly on one airline vs. another because they knew and liked the people better? BMW drivers mingle with each other on Facebook; Lufthansa passengers could do likewise and they’d have more in common—shared affection for travel and for a destination. Remember: Your company is the company you keep. Your customers are your brand. Airlines might want to encourage more interesting people to fly with them because interesting passengers would attract interesting passengers. Airlines could offer discounts and benefits to people who are active and popular in the social network. Today, airlines offer only seats: commodities. What if, instead, they were to offer experiences and societies? I know, the last thing we want most of the time is to get stuck with a talkative twit in the next seat. Maybe that’s because, by the time we get on a plane, we’re in rotten moods. Suspend disbelief still. Imagine returning to the days when we met interesting people in chance encounters in the air. Maybe passengers could choose to sit next to each other. Next to the right talker, I might tolerate a middle seat. It would probably have to be David Letterman or Oprah sitting next to me. But it could happen.

These passenger networks raise the possibility of creating a new economy around the flight. Airlines could set up auction marketplaces for at least some seats, as JetBlue began doing experimentally on eBay in 2008: What’s it worth for you to fly to Orlando next Monday? Rather than buying seats only from the airline, if late-booking passengers could also buy seats from fellow customers in an open marketplace, that could solve some of the airlines’ overbooking problems, reducing the need to pay bumped fliers. Yes, speculators could arbitrage seats, but if they’re paid-for and nonrefundable, what problem is that for the airline? Resellers become market makers. This exchange sets a new market value for seats that in some cases will be higher than the airlines’ own fares.

The airline could use the exchange as a prediction market to forecast and maximize load. It might see a surge in demand for a destination, perhaps for reasons it could not predict (a new conference or festival, good media coverage for a getaway, a travel bargain, or currency fluctuations unleashing pent-up demand). With sufficient notice, the airline could add capacity, which would keep it ahead of arbitrageurs. The airline always controls supply and now it would know more about demand. Similarly, if a flight were light the airline could offer passengers alternatives at big discounts to enable it to cancel the flight and reroute equipment long before departure, creating savings at the bottom line. The airline would increase efficiency and profitability; the passengers would get a dividend; and the environment would get a break. An open and flexible social marketplace could transform the airline economy.