We’ll call him Mr. X. He has decades of experience working with some of the biggest players in the airline industry. And he hates flying every bit as much as you do.
The difference, though, is that Mr. X is probably more pragmatic than you or I. So while he originally agreed to this interview to expose the dirty laundry of the airline industry, what he ended up doing was offering a more nuanced explanation of why things were so bad. Thanks to the Internet, air travel has become price-point commoditized in a race to the bottom. And the industry, which is a service rather than a product, is caught up in a cycle of constant maintenance, rather than improvement.
“I’m not trying to be an apologist for the airlines,” he says. “But the thing that probably gets lost a little bit along the way is that the average passenger doesn’t understand the economics at work with air travel.”
The biggest complaint we all have–that airlines are quietly moving seats closer and closer together, eliminating our legroom–is both true and valid. However, at the moment, it’s something of a necessary evil for the airlines, which operate with no decent alternative to make money other than selling more seats.
“The economics of air travel require density. That’s what it comes down to,” he says. “When people are asking, ‘Why’s my knee touching the seat in front of me?’ it’s because of the density area. They’re constantly searching for new ways to save space.”
Mr. X points to the Expedia-ization of air travel. “That’s commoditization happening in real time,” he says. “Compare that to what an Apple can do, or a bottle of water can do. The airlines have not been able to command a premium for their products. They’re constantly in this race to the bottom when it comes to pricing.”
Many international carriers, like Air India, Singapore Airlines, and, depending whom you talk to, Emirates, are actually subsidized by their respective governments to ensure quality and drive tourism. United States airlines get no such subsidies. And in turn, airlines run at such low margins that, on some routes, the profit of a flight is actually a single business-class ticket. Rising gas prices haven’t helped, either. While they’re lower now than in past years, Mr. X says that fuel was reaching upwards of 90% of an airline’s operating cost.
The negative effects of online air booking snowball. When the market becomes commoditized, consumers actually lose touch with the value of what they’re getting. “That’s the psychology of pricing at work,” he says. “I don’t think twice about spending $3 for a coffee, and I love beer. But sometimes I’ll be at the beer aisle and that six pack is $10.99 and I’ll think, That’s pretty expensive!”
We might pay $69 to fly one-way from L.A. to St Louis. It seems less like a steal than it does a deal. And yet, that’s a 1,500-mile journey, priced as low as a single surge-charged Uber.
“You see that in commentary, this is now a Greyhound with wings. And it’s like, yeah! It is!” he says. “I don’t go to Walmart and expect Nordstrom’s service. But I think that’s what happens. You do pay a Walmart price, and you expect Nordstrom’s service. It’s a tradeoff.”
Given that gas represents the majority of cost for any airline’s operations, the greatest opportunity for cost savings comes down to lightening the load, and that trickles all the way down to the sensation of sitting in your seat.
“If I wanted to wave a magic wand for the public, it’d be to understand the implications of weight,” Mr. X says. “Weight is an enormous issue. There’s handwringing about every gram.” And in fact, every kilogram of weight that can be shaved from an airplane will amount to $100 in gas savings for that plane over a calendar year. And so every ensuing decision about the aircraft itself has to be filtered through this lens.
“If they’re working on a seat design, it’s not enough to say, ‘We want to create a seat that’s 20% more comfortable.’ It has to be 20% more comfortable and 20% lighter,” he says. “Those are, by the way, at odds with one another.”
Naturally, all this weight talk also means that heavier people cost airlines more to fly than lighter people. In 2013, Samoa Air notoriously began charging their customers by weight. As their CEO Chris Langton said at the time, “This is the fairest way of traveling. There are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything–it is just a kilo is a kilo is a kilo.”
“It’s almost the USPS model applied to air travel. You’re a parcel, and we’re gonna mail ya!” Mr. X laughs. “But in some ways, it makes sense.”
But the experience of air travel goes far beyond the size of the seats. Travel is full of the intangibles of customer service that begins with the flight crew. Virgin Atlantic famously coached its flight attendants to whisper in first class. Singapore Airlines’ flight attendants are so beautiful that they’re featured in a yearly calendar. It’s all a far cry from what we have in the U.S., that often frown-filled beverage cart that catches your knee on the way by.
“Think about an airline like United, and they’re shackled with unintentionally bad labor arrangements,” he says. “A 20-year veteran flight crew [member] is going to get the choicest route on United, and unfortunately, that’s the person who is most disgruntled about what they’re doing, because they have 20 years of United screwing them over.”
When U.S. airlines were banned from forcing retirements in the 1960s, it was a feminist-born boon for worker rights, preventing the airline industry from milking someone’s most attractive years, only to end their career when the crow’s feet started to show. But Mr. X is realistic about what that means for us as customers–that often, flying feels more like you’re at the mercy of those lifers behind the counter at the DMV.
It’s why many international airlines continue doing business the old way. Singapore Airlines markets their flight attendants like planted models in a nightclub, and the company has rules in place so that attendees can only be seen in uniform on the plane itself, to create a culture of exclusivity. “Emirates–not union–recruits really young, bright, and beautiful people out of Malaysia who provide fantastic service,” he adds, pointing out that they’re even forced to wear a mandatory shade of lipstick. “It’s a totally different feel.”
Mr. X points to all sorts of things he’d like to see changed. Why don’t the airlines still offer kids diecast models, to make them fans of a brand for life? Why don’t airlines make more money by selling things you actually want, rather than bad meals and boxed snack samples?
But his biggest pet peeve is something “that probably pisses people off in a way that they can’t articulate,” he says. “There’s no justice in air travel.” See if any of these infuriating moments he lists off in quick succession sound familiar to you:
“If I do the right thing and I check my bag, I go to the gate, and the jackass with the biggest bag–you can’t believe went through TSA–checks his gate-side for free. It’s like, I did what i was supposed to do, and for my troubles, I got dinged $25.”
“United has no fewer than eight boarding zones. I can’t think of a way that’d be more effective than instituting a caste system. It’s like, we have seven waves of people more important to you! It’s not about efficiency in boarding, it’s about more miles, credits–who has and who has not.”
“There’s a special place in hell reserved for the person who gets on the plane first, drops their bag at row 8, and sits at row 25.”
“The middle seat is just begging for intimization. But it’s a purgatory that just exists. If you were to go to a Bears game and you had an obstructed-view seat, you’d pay less for it. But a lot a lot of people sitting in the middle seat have booked later, so they’ve paid more.”
Mr. X says Southwest is one of the few domestic carriers that’s managed to differentiate itself, while offering a bit more justice along the way. Their bag checks are free. Their loading system is numbered rather than classed. It’s still an experience designed like a Greyhound for the sky, sure, but at least there’s a more democratized sense of order. I’d call out Virgin America as nailing the experience design, too. Their purple light is a soothing way to get onto a plane. Their staff is cheerfully professional. Plus, you can always order another Diet Coke from a touchscreen at your seat.
But these innovators are few and far between.
“Do you remember the Seinfeld episode when Newman says, ‘There’s always the mail?'” he asks. “Airlines suffer from the same problem in some ways. They never stop. It all just goes and goes and goes. Compared to a tech company, they don’t get these moments that say what worked with that first product, what didn’t. I think psychologically, it makes them less predisposed to those big leaps forward.”