Put Me in Coach...

About that seat next to you on the flight that you were hoping to be empty...

No, this is not about the 1984 John Fogarty song "Centerfield." It's about the joys of flying coach and it's in the news. Airline industry investors on Wall Street and in some hedge funds are expressing concern that soon you might—underscore "might"—have a pleasant and unexpected surprise: an empty seat next to you. Except for the uber-extraverts who see an empty seat as a missed opportunity to make a new friend, having an adjoining empty seat on a flight is like winning the lottery and in these last few years of hell-bent yield management, with the airlines taking seats out of service by mothballing planes and reducing schedules, the lottery win seems to be a more frequent occurrence of the two.

A recent article in the national business press bemoaned the fact that some airlines are adding to capacity, which in airline speak, means making more seats available. While the news of a few extra seats puts a big smile on the faces of us flyers, two different hedge fund spokesmen in the article expressed alarm at the possibility of customers having a little stretch room on an occasional flight. Well, I'm reasonably sure those two fellows do not on a regular basis fly coach and have to engage in limb spooning on their three inch shared arm rests with their new random BFs like the rest of us do. Empty seats means lost revenue, so the objective becomes putting a tush in every cush.

Granted, everybody's got to make a buck, and half empty airplanes leads to half empty balance sheets and the possibility of no airplanes at all. Cramped quarters is preferable to no quarters, I suppose, so this essay is not a screed or a whine list about the evil airlines. Rather, it got me thinking that unlike most other products or services we purchase, flying coach is one of only a few things we buy for which the customer experience is almost always diminished by the existence of other customers. Not only does a fuller plane restrict where we can rest our body parts, but it means longer lines, longer wait times and greater competition for overhead storage. And all because there are fellow customers—like us—involved.

That's different than most other products or services we purchase for which the existence of other customers has little or no impact on our product experience. A car, a computer, a certificate of deposit, commercial software, store-bought food, clothing—it's a non-zero sum situation. Our user experience (as distinguished from supply and demand pricing factors) has almost nothing to do with whether or not there are fellow consumers, except for any smugness we might enjoy from being the only person in the group who owns a (fill in the blank).

And in fact, with some products or services in entertainment, the customer experience is actually enhanced by the existence of others. At a concert, a play or an athletic contest, the presence and the energy of other people adds to the value of the product itself. Being part of a sold out event is seen as a good thing by most of us, except, of course, for the rest room lines. The collective appreciation of the event; the patter, chatter and clatter in the lobby or stands at intermission or half time; the connectivity of audience and entertainers—it adds rather than detracts. A mosh pit without moshers is simply a dead space on the floor. I think of restaurants in the same way—more fellow human beings generally add to the fun factor.

One soccer team in Italy experiencing low fan turnout the last few years has recently covered part of the stands in the stadium with huge sheets of fabric showing digitalized people—faux fans if you will—and they have added ersatz crowd noise to create more of an exciting event for both the spectators and the players. I'm not making that up. That's not at all like the sense of dread in the boarding area when you hear the announcement, "This will be a very full flight, so your carry-on bag cannot be any larger than a medium-sized potato ... "

So, our user experience with some things we buy is enhanced by the existence of other customers, for other things that user experience is diminished and for most things it's neutral. What a fun new way of categorizing and compartmentalizing our world, eh? Yes, that's my stream of consciousness as I'm waiting to board my flight, all brought on by the thought of having to soon play yet another round of vertical Twister as I contort myself and annoy others trying to reach my window seat without violating any laws that speak to public intimacy. Gotta go—time to, um, rub elbows with someone.

Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for a global talent management consulting firm and can be contacted at business-at-large@sbcglobal.net.

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