The nation’s airlines are your servants. If you’re flying nowadays, you have to deal with the machines.
Airlines are reluctant to change their mix of air travel and technology. They think in terms of “how much can we distract you” and not the overall experience. The average air traveler with a credit card is probably the most sedentary person traveling around the country: For most, it would be easier if airlines allowed them to consume food at the airport. But they’re still afraid to change what they’ve always done to soothe stress, and, even more importantly, save them money.
To understand why these airlines are resisting meaningful change, it’s important to understand how they get from point A to point B.
There’s an airline named Air Tran, and for years the company has quietly advocated for several innovations that would make air travel much more convenient. They’ve advocated for real time tracking of your flight, real time streaming of your flights for the period you’re traveling, and other minor, but remarkably useful features. The people in Air Tran didn’t love to talk about their ideas (or even admit to them), but their work as some of the nation’s leading advocacy groups for innovation on the world’s largest transportation systems finally got to President Obama. If it wasn’t good enough to put their own ideas into the federal Airport Improvement Program, then Obama said, most of their suggestions should be for airports in Florida.
It wasn’t as if there weren’t reasons for Air Tran to complain. The U.S. airlines had a $41 billion profit in 2016—that’s $29.22 for every American. There are businesses and real estate in cities like Las Vegas and San Francisco that could never keep up with all of the expensive flights that US airlines offer. It’s a business model built on total dependence on the general public, and in the past it’s worked. But the model isn’t working as well as it used to. If there is enough money to prop up and subsidize these airlines, surely someone else needs to be getting a piece of the action. Yet Air Tran’s ideas have been ignored.
Airline CEOs and boards have been reluctant to change, however, because their role is to manage for the bottom line. They’re supposed to be experts at customer experience and efficiency; the problem is that running an efficient and effective airline has nothing to do with good customer service.
Ladies and gentlemen of the media, have I got a story for you!
At the annual Airline Business World CEO Summit in San Francisco, the carriers were bracing for perhaps a disaster. A winter storm was setting in, and storms in the Midwest meant cancelled flights. At the meeting, every major airline was slow to get rid of stranded passengers. For those of us in the back of the room, sitting as we were, stranded for at least two hours with nowhere to go, it was a real disaster.
There’s no way around the fact that it is time for airlines to take their customers seriously, to treat them like human beings, and to make things better for them.
But the airlines, with their annual profits of almost $30 billion, don’t really need to worry about hurting their bottom line. Not yet.