Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lost in the Air

It's sometimes refreshing to know that nothing changes. Delta Airlines proved that this week when they managed to annoy most of the United States because of some confusion as to whether they were charging soldiers returning from the Mid-East for a fourth bag. Was no one available, with one phone call, to say ‘forget it, let them through?’ The answer is ‘No.’ Did they later fix it? Yes. But too late to relieve anyone of the perception that the airlines don’t have their act together. And why should they? They don’t.

A few months ago I had the ‘opportunity’ to spend some considerable time looking at the airline industry – up close and personal. During an 8 day period I flew on ten different occasions, logged nearly 30,000 miles and spent what seems like several months sitting around airport terminals watching the airlines – both in the US and abroad – carry out the business of air travel. This allowed me to update my perspectives, one formed by hundreds of other flights, thousands of hours in the air, and visits to perhaps 100 or more airports on scores of different airlines. Herewith some observations (which are – unremarkably – little changed from similar observations a number of years ago:

No one is thinking. I saw several different airlines – that now all charge for checking-in luggage – forced to deal with a crisis when there was simply not enough space in ‘carry-on’ storage bins to accommodate every passenger. This resulted in delays in boarding as well as then insisting that everyone left in the terminal check-in their luggage. What then followed were exercises in the arbitrary nature of petty power, as various people were allowed to board with some form of checked baggage and others were not. Tempers rose and passengers, nearly universally, became frustrated.

Take note: this is a crisis the airlines created. The reason people carry on luggage is two-fold: One - after nearly 60 years of jet-powered commercial aviation the airlines still do not know how to handle luggage quickly and courteously. No one really trusts the airlines to handle their luggage. Even the folks behind the counters don’t trust their own companies and repeatedly warn passengers to not check certain items. I repeatedly heard the comment ‘you better keep hold of that yourself’ or words to that effect. Then secondly, as if to see if it’s possible to make the situation worse, nearly all the airlines now charge for the ‘opportunity’ to check luggage, perhaps get it damaged, maybe lost, and certainly extend your stay in the airport at the other end when you arrive at your destination only to stand around and wait for your luggage to – finally – appear.

‘No one is thinking’ includes the engineers. I took one flight that lasted nearly 18 hours – by design. By the time we had been in the airplane for 12 hours, with another 6 hours of flight in front of us, nearly everyone, including the frazzled stewards and stewardesses, would have cheered if the airplane had been forced to land someplace. Does anyone think being in an airplane, in a tiny seat, eating lousy food, watching a 3 x 5 inch fuzzy TV screen, is a good idea? Here’s a hint: No.

To cap it off, we are now doing this with 400 of our newest friends. All of whom board and deplane through the same door. Yet we read about think-pieces for airplanes with 10,000 mile ranges (20+ hours in the air) and ever more passengers, and even airplanes that will have extreme width cabins, where we can put 20 seats across. Even more opportunities to sit in middle seats.

When was the last time senior executives AND senior engineers flew across the Atlantic – or worse the Pacific – sitting in coach? In a center seat? Try it sometime. Perhaps the airlines need to institute a new TV show: Undercover Passenger Boss, when various CEOs and Senior VPs of airlines as well as senior engineers of the major aircraft manufacturers have to sit in terminals and suffer through hours of waiting, only to be loaded like cattle only to sit in crowded seats and be fed bad food, while trying to listen and watch a move on that same 3 x 5 inch flat screen.

I would suggest that the above problems might best be addressed by including these issues in the next design effort: how do you build an airplane that can comfortably load and unload from both ends simultaneously? If it is a ‘wide-body’ with double aisles, why can’t it be loaded and unloaded with four ramps? (Two on each side.) Why do we still load and unload baggage by hand? Isn’t there a possible solution using containers and some sort of tram system to insert the containers? Yes, I am aware that each of these issues would have cost consequences, and yes I know that Denver International tried and failed to install a high-speed luggage handling system and failed. The Wright Brothers failed several times. Maybe this might be worth the second effort.

And how about a mechanism that can automatically clean the toilets? They already exist in some cities around the world. There is something particularly unpleasant with walking into chemical toilets after 15 hours of use by several hundred people. I was in the military for the better part of 3 decades – but at least I wasn’t a paying customer when I had to use those various latrines and chemical toilets.

I might be tempted to excuse these events except that I saw them repeatedly played out in a number of different airports in the US, Europe and the Mid-East. And I have seen them before, though it now seems to be that these have all become common occurrences.

What can I infer from this? Most of the airlines are run by people concerned with, well, actually, I’m not sure. Certainly not building anything approaching brand loyalty. In fact, from the comments I heard – repeatedly, frequently, loudly - there are any number of people on three separate continents who have developed ‘brand hatred,’ as in “I will NEVER fly on XXXX again.” I thought one of the goals of any enterprise, especially a commercial enterprise, was to build a following. From what I have seen over the last 20 years, no one any longer enjoys commercial air travel. Actually, that’s not accurate: everyone strongly dislikes it, at best, and many, very many, hate it. We do it because we must. But we will switch to anything else if given half a chance. I now find I will drive nearly anywhere within about a 6 hour ride rather than fly, because I can’t stand the process and the agony. Nearly everyone I know – young and old – feels the same way.

The US is about to invest tens of billions of dollars in high-speed rail. This is a mistake, as passenger rail services – worldwide – are big money losers. Nevertheless, people will use it and endorse it, as costly as it will be, just to avoid having to deal with airports and airlines. Does anyone in airlines leadership worry about the real signal being sent here? Here’s a note to anyone holding any airline stock: the next time a proxy card comes around, vote ‘none of the above’ for any senior leadership positions.

It is also worth noting that the folks who run most of the airlines don’t seem terribly interested in profits. The same airlines seem to always be hitting their profit marks and the same ones keep hovering at break even, with routine dips into red ink. Yet the ones that are losing money don’t change their bad habits, but plunge on, occasionally merging with some other poorly run airlines.

Add on top of this the security folks – both in the US and abroad. In what can only be called the most bizarre and obscure reasoning, they all continue to modify procedures to make the process of getting to the gate ever more unpleasant. It is nice to know, however, that they have started profiling: so far, the only people I have seen who have been put through the full body scans or given extra pat-downs have either been in-shape men and women, or the very elderly. If you are young and in shape you seem to be on everyone’s list. But, at least it’s a start?

The point in all this is that there is no real leadership anywhere near the decision-making taking place in the airline industry. The folks who occupy the senior seats in that industry could be out-led by Elmer Fudd. The industry will stumble along because we all need it. But it will do so in spite of, rather than because of their individual and collective efforts. If you have any say in the leadership of the airline industry, I encourage you to push for some real leadership. Give me a call, I’ll run an airline at half the price you are paying your current CEO and I’ll do it better, not that that would be too hard.


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