This blog goes in the, “There has got to be a better way” category. While there are a ton of great tools that make remote work and web-based meetings easier, sometimes it is necessary to get on a plane for business reasons or personal ones. (Vacation anyone?) But, if you want to understand how people feel about the experience of flying these days, just read the comments on any blog or news story related to travel. You’ll quickly learn that people find it to be miserable. One commenter, Greg, refereed to the boarding process as “Hunger Games.” (I like you Greg.) There’s even a website called Airline Complaints. Complaints range from issues with security to hidden fees and bizarre boarding procedures, and that’s just what goes on before you get on the plane. I’m no travel expert, but I do fly frequently enough to have a few thoughts on how it might be done better. I suspect you may too. I’m not suggesting any major overhaul or anything that would hurt airline profits, although that may be what is necessary for a more systemic fix, just a few tweaks that I think would help.
Put the People Who Are Beholden to the Customer (the Airlines) Back in Charge of Security
This is not a suggestion that the rules for security be changed or that the TSA be completely eliminated from the equation. My suggestion is simply that the people who see us through the screening process should be employees of a company that we can choose (or not) to do business with. They should be uniformed in such a way that makes their employer obvious. Even if not one single rule was changed, and even if the TSA was still responsible for making the rules and overseeing tings, this simple change would likely improve customer service and the efficiency of the process. It would also give customers who were treated poorly some kind of recourse.
Speaking of Security, We Need to Segregate Travelers
I don’t mean by race or income or willingness to be pre-profiled, I mean by flying experience. Knowing exactly what needs to come out of your bag and off your person is the key to getting through security quickly. Not everyone knows this stuff, nor do they need to, and it changes frequently. I’m not suggesting that this segregation be forced, let’s just see what happens if we let people self-select for a line designed with extra help for infrequent and special needs travelers. Rather than barking the same instructions every 30 seconds at a business man who can take off his shoes and pull his laptop out of the bag at the same time, let the agents actually assist the elderly couple who looks confused or the father with three small children. I suspect they’d be happy for the assistance and even happier to get out of the way of eye-rolling seasoned travelers (admittedly, me on some occasions).
Incent the Behavior you Want
This is also related to the fact that there is a difference between frequent travelers and those who rarely fly. For example, charging for checked bags encourages vacationers to carry all of their belonging on the plane if it is at all possible, even if their preference would be to check bags. This fee dose not impact business travelers as much, as they are less likely to be paying for the trip and aren’t as cost conscious, but they may actually want to carry on their belongings for other reasons. The airlines have basically encouraged people to bring more stuff onto the plane, which is exactly what they should be trying to avoid. It makes security lines longer and more prone to lapses, it slows boarding and disembarking and it leads to competition for overhead space (which, in turn, leads to truly insane boarding procedures). So, how do we fix it? Stop charging for the first checked bag and instead charge for overhead space. Count the number of slots for roll-aboards and stop selling them when the space is estimated to be full. If you don’t have a ticket for your roll-aboard, it gets gate checked.
The best part of this approach is that it essentially eliminates the advantage of boarding first. American Airlines is piloting a program that lets people with out overhead baggage get on the plane first. Why in the world would you want to if you aren’t competing for overhead space? Especially if you are one of the two thirds of passengers who aren’t in a window seat? Are the seats that comfortable? Carriers use the boarding process as a way to wink and nod at their favorite customers (people who use an airline credit card, for example). If overhead space were sold airlines could focus on finding the most efficient boarding procedure to decrease the amount of time spent on the plane and increase on-time departures for everyone. I don’t claim to know exactly what procedure is best, but is sure isn’t any of the ones in use today.
Embrace Mobile Technology On-board
With more and more planes offering Wi/Fi service and theories about the danger of using mobile devices in flight coming into doubt, why not turn the smartphone in your customer’s pocket into your friend? Why not build an app that let’s customers order and pay for food and beverages? They’ve got this figured out in many airport restaurants where you can order and pay from a tablet. Yes, some people don’t have smartphones, so flight attendants would still have to carry round those silly credit card readers, but if you could eliminate using them for even half of the passengers, wouldn’t that be good? (Note to the CFO, if someone creates a profile, which includes their credit card info, they may order more food and wine because its easier than digging out a card. Ask the makers of Candy Crush about this.) The app could also let people know all sorts of useful information, like the time remaining in the flight, their connecting gate, directions from the landing gate to luggage and grown transportation, the weather at their ultimate destination. It could be personalized to the point it could serve as an in-flight concierge.
So, that’s what I’ve got. Let’s hear from you. How would you fix, tweak or re-imagine air travel?