Time for an Airline ReInvention

Everything is getting better. Except Airlines. 

The car you drive is safer, more efficient, and will last more miles with less maintenance, than its 1960 equivalent. Now think about that smart phone in your pocket with all its capability and the tools it replaced from another era — land line, desktop computer, slide rule, calculator, almanac, atlas, etc…

Then there’s air travel, where nothing’s changed for the better since 1960. Planes aren’t any faster, they’re less comfortable, and they’re only marginally more efficient. As for technology, the average nursery school has done a better job of keeping up than the airlines. Ask a ticketing agent to check backup flight options and you’ll travel back in time as she punches code into a keyboard on a computer still using an MS-DOS operating system. 

How an Airline ReInvention might fly

As a frequent flyer for over two decades, I offer the following recommendations for those whose business is flying those of us who fly for business. 

Update your technology systems

This doesn’t even qualify as ReInvention. The rest of the business world calls this “staying current.” The traveling public, using Google and Flight Tracker, has better tech in their pockets than your employees. Your systems are so antiquated, you make Amtrak look “cutting edge.” 

Consolidation is NOT ReInvention

Since I began traveling in 1993, almost as many domestic airlines have merged as currently exist. Northwest, TWA, Continental, US Airways, and America West are 5 merged airlines with which I once had gold status. Understand this, aviators: Consolidation is a business decision, but it is NOT reinvention. 

What positives have your customers experienced as a result of your airline getting bigger? Other than achieving oligopoly status, of course? Remember, Pan Am was plenty big, but they failed. 

Commodity Mentality versus Constant Creativity

When you’re a commodity producer, you have one track to profitability: be a low cost producer and sell cheap. This is why I find it interesting that Southwest is dubbed a “low cost carrier.” Of all the airlines, they’re the most inventive and adaptive. Southwest exhibits constant creativity in retooling their brand, while the other big carriers are still stuck on the tarmac of ReInvention. 

Want to ReInvent your airline? Hire innovative people from outside the industry to inject fresh ideas. Eventually, you won’t be able to make the seats any smaller, or squeeze more chairs on the plane. Then what will you do to boost profits? 

Bring back some standards

As a business traveler, your airplane is my mobile office 150 days per year. Make flying a more positive and productive experience for business travelers. We’ll pay more — at least I will — for service that improves our business. 

Can an Airline ReInvention get liftoff? 

The alternatives to commercial air travel are limited and/or impractical. Airlines understand this, just like they understand their oligopolistic position, which is why they innovate at a snail’s pace. 

But turbulent change will eventually come. My advice to (U.S. based) airlines: ReInvent yourself before it’s too late. Do you think Yellow Cab saw Uber or Lyft in its rearview mirrors? Big, unresponsive airlines stuck on auto pilot will soon be wondering where those customers they took for granted have gone. 

Damian Mason speaks, writes, and consults on the subjects of Business ReInvention and Agriculture. Find him at www.damianmason.com