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Another Messed Up Industry Makes Things Worse

A few days ago, I wrote about terrestial radio's forays to generate the kind of excitement and buzz that it needs to fend off the iPod and satellite radio. Now today comes this story in the New York Times (registration required) about the major airlines and their continued diminshment of services in the wake of their continued massive losses.

The topline is that established airlines such as Northwest, American and United are cutting out such frills as mini-bags of pretzels, they're charging for curbside bag service, and they're putting ads on tray tables and cocktail napkins in an effort to find every nickel hiding under every seat cushion (if anyone ever needed a floatation device right now, it's the airlines) to save themselves from ruin.

At this point, it's difficult to imagine things getting worse, but clearly they're trying. A trip to Chicago on United a few weeks ago made me think that the widely-held description of air travel resembling bus travel no longer cuts it. Ship steerage might be the better analogy.

We were treated no better than cattle at the security gate (while United employees opened up extra lanes for premium passengers, the unwashed masses like me were brusquely herded into a lane by a woman whose greeting was so perfunctory and lifeless that it's hard to know for sure if she was in fact human and not the latest innovation from the people who make those robot cleaning products. We were told that line would be faster, but of course, it wasn't.) Then there was an hour delay waiting for a flight attendant to show up, I sat in a middle seat in coach that I swear had the least legroom of any plane I've ever been on, the video service was broken, and the flight so awful that Bette Davis' signature line in All About Eve ("Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night") seems to have been the pilot's inspiration for the trip.

At the same time, though, these same chiseler airlines are adding services for first-class and business-class passengers: lie-flat beds, personal entertainment systems, better food, etc. (At least these muckety-mucks still have to suffer through turbulence, albeit it in more comfortable seats.)

So in the spirit of the strategic idea I posed re: radio, I have a modest proposal. Why don't the major airlines just get out of the business of serving poor schlubs that they make no money on? Go premium and go as over the top as possible. We've written about companies that have "fired" their worst customers (in the July issue, soon to be online, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers propose a way for businesses to measure their best customers. Look for it). Seems like the airlines have to face this option in some way, shape, or form.

Planes could look like the setup in the old Airport '77 movie, with the swank custom-built recreation areas and the piano bar and all that junk. (The somewhat troubled Airbus A380 does, in fact, offer just such a setup.) Play up a return to the glamour of air travel of the 1950s and 1960s (without the "coffee, tea, or me" misogyny naturally, while still capturing the spirit of an upscale lounge). Because even with all the upgrading going on for passengers in first or business, they still have to see the vulgarity of coach class people, heaven forfend.

Yes, others have tried this and it's failed (MGM Air, anyone? And on a very limited, super high-end basis, the Concorde), just as a lot of folks have tried discount carriers and failed. But Southwest and a href="//www.fastcompany.com/magazine/82/jetblue.html">JetBlue have succeeded. So it's not that far-fetched to think it could be done. Maybe the era of air travel for the masses was a blip. Or at least the class struggle that plays out in each airplane every day isn't meant to be.

I'll say one thing, though, to the airlines, and I think this goes for any company that deals with customers every day. If you're going to cut out the last of the small niceties that you offer or charge for something that you've never before charged for, I wouldn't necessarily come right out and say it. Airlines would be better off just hiding that $2 per bag charge in the cost of a ticket than asking customers for it in a rude surprise.

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