Posts about airline

Friendly skies

I was five hours late returning from San Francisco to home yesterday but I was remarkably calm and sanguine about the delay. Why? Because I was well-informed and well-cared-for. And that was the case because this year I joined the secret society of most-frequent travelers and ticket buyers on United: Global Services.

sfo screenshotWe were taxiing out to the runway at SFO for our agonizingly early 6:45 a.m. flight when the pilot said a gauge wasn’t acting properly. Back to the gate we went (and I was amused that my United app showed us arriving before we’d taken off). Much testing and back-and-forthing by mechanics ensued. It didn’t work. The plane was taken out of service. We were told to leave. Shit happens.

Then could have begun the customary hell of wrenches — literal and figurative — thrown into travel plans and planes. That was nearly the case. The entire planeload ran to a customer-service line seeking rescue. The person behind the counter said she couldn’t rebook us because our tickets were “used.” We were told United was, and I quote, “looking for” a plane. Pesky critters go hiding, apparently. Grumbling started to rumble.

But then two nice things happened. First, the lady behind the counter, named Rita, scolded operations at the airline for not giving passengers complete and accurate information. How nice — how rare — it was to have an ally fighting for us, the customers. That also preempted our need to fight for ourselves.

Then I got a phone call from Global Services. This, I quickly learned, is the real perk of being in the club (not just being the obnoxious guy who gets to get on the plane first). A very nice woman named Terry Norris told me that she had already rebooked me on three — yes, three — flights to afford choices based on time, airport, and seat assignment. Wow. I wasn’t sure what to do so I held onto one choice and Terry let me wait to decide while the airline went looking for its pesky plane. (Of course, when found, I imagine an employee shouting this:)

About an hour later, Terry called me back and informed me that a plane coming in from Raleigh-Durham had been assigned to us (which, of course, is what they mean then they say they “found” a plane). It would be arriving at 10:05 a.m. I’d still have my beloved first-class, aisle, bulkhead seat (I’d bought an upgrade with my miles). It so happens that I knew about the found plane before the gate agent did and filled him in.

I took to Twitter to thank and publicly praise these good people.

And then @ahalam had a suggestion:

Right. Why shouldn’t everyone get the kind of service I got yesterday? Well, the answer at first is obvious: It would be prohibitively expensive for airlines to have lots of Terrys to personally take care of and inform every customer. I get that service now because the airline made a lot of money off me last year, when I flew more than 100,000 miles. But if every customer could, indeed, get that level of service, wouldn’t the airline make even more money from even more satisfied and loyal customers? Call me an cockeyed optimist, but isn’t that a service ideal?

Well, @ahalam is right: A software agent could take personal care of customers. The new United Android app is good and it keeps me better-informed than I used to be because now I can look up where the plane I’m waiting to board is coming from and when it will arrive as well as the status of wait lists for seats and upgrades. That’s quite an advance.

Imagine if when I arrive at the airport neurotically early, as I tend to do (thanks, Mom), United would ping me and ask whether I wanted that empty seat on an earlier flight. Imagine if when there are problems, United’s software agent keeps me personally informed and, like Terry, gives me other options to get to my destination. Imagine if this automated agent knew I liked going to on pleasure rather than business and sent me a tempting deal to fill up a plane. Imagine if, knowing my preferences in hotels and local transit — Über? rental car? train? — the agent booked and billed me from door to door, giving me choices but not requiring me to go through scores of pages to get the job done. Imagine if the computer agent knew me so well it could preload my own shows on the entertainment system (you left off at episode 23 of House of Cards, Mr. Jarvis) and order me the food and wine I like and seat me next to interesting people who like to talk or people like me who prefer the silence? Imagine, as I suggested a few years ago, if the airline could gather the collective wisdom of its passengers about their favorite destinations or hometowns and share that with other passengers. Imagine if just one airline did all that for us instead of making its money by nickel-and-diming us charging for bags of nuts or bags on the plane.

All that is possible. It would mean that an airline would have to respect customers as individuals rather than as anonymous butts in seats, building trusted and rich relationships with each one of us and rewarding us with tangible benefits.

More important, it would mean that an airline would have to become a technology company (which just happens to own metal tubes that fly). Such an airline’s core competence would be in building systems to super-serve customers with information and solutions and relevant suggestions based on rich data.

As we landed in Newark more than four hours late, I was starting to think this could happen if just one brave airline invested in such a future.

Four hours late? Didn’t I say above we were five hours late? Well that’s because the airline’s computer system had broken down and so none of the flights getting ready to leave were allowed to depart their gates and thus no gates were free for us and so we sat on the runway and — “the hits just keep coming,” said the pilot — then there was no one to drive the jetway to us. Oh, well. And I was imagining the new airline as technology company.

Well, a passenger can dream, can’t he?

In any case, given how much abuse airlines take on Twitter, I thought I’d say thanks to United for making a bad day as bearable as it could be for me. And I’m glad I wasn’t traveling with the passenger whose plane always flies under a dark cloud. See…

And a postscript from Mr. Buttry:

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:

* * *

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.