Taking a flight across the globe used to be a glamorous affair; a special event that marked the start of an adventure into the unknown. Somewhere between speedy boarding and paying for luggage flying has become a supremely stressful and uncomfortable experience with little to enjoy.
Adopted as the industry’s anthem Frank Sinatra’s ‘Come fly with me’ epitomised the golden age of passenger flight. This was an age where the industry wanted to do everything they could to entice customers to a new mode of travel. Pilots were revered akin to doctors as respected role models in the community while air stewardesses conveyed an image of effortless beauty and sophistication as they hosted your journey across the world. What wasn’t to like? The message was clear, you can trust your airline to take care of you every step of the way.
It began with one company that made it their mission to rule the skies. Pan American World Airways more commonly known as Pan Am was the industry leader from the beginning of 1927 until a series of events led to its demise in the early 1990s. They were the pioneers of one of the first truly global industries.
After World War II, Pan Am commissioned Boeing to produce the 377 Stratocruiser as its first luxury plane. With a downstairs lounge, luxurious accommodation and meals that ‘any house-wife would be proud to serve’ (in the words of Pan Am’s own marketing video) they not only brought the world closer together but did so with panache.
So how did we arrive at a place where the service provided by airlines is no longer built with the customer in mind. It seems that the influx of low-cost airlines in the last two decades has shifted the entire market to deliver less value instead of more.
Whilst not every airline can strive to deliver against the high standard set by Pan Am, there must be a point at which the most basic service remains in tune with the fundamental requirement of the passenger, a sentiment lost on low-cost airlines.
Low-cost airlines are not a recently formed market segment. Traditional low-cost airlines have been around since the early 70s, however not as we describe them today. They were defined as those airlines that had lower operating costs than their competitors but still maintained a full service.
In stark contrast to the service we often see today, many low-cost carriers have spent the last two decades ‘unbundling’ the full service and charging for each component separately to maximise revenue. This race to the bottom has left us with providers that live by a no-frills philosophy which can include:
- Reducing the amount of fuel on board to reduce the weight of the aircraft
- Charging for baggage as though you are not likely to bring any on your travels
- Charging for allocated seats
- Charging for water
- Charging you to print your ticket for you
If Pan Am were the pioneers of passenger flight, Ryanair is the pioneer of a truly low-cost, zero value passenger flight.
Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair has made no secret that he would one day like to achieve free flights for customers (with the exception of tax) offset by the other revenue streams. Whilst this initially seems like an attractive offer, it becomes difficult to imagine how horrific that might be when this is the CEO who once claimed he would “charge passengers to use the toilet”.
At a shareholders meeting, O’Leary stated that Ryanair should make a new effort not to “unnecessarily piss people off”. Shareholders would have been delighted to hear that O’Leary set out to reconnect with customers and make amends via Twitter. Ryanair advertised an hour-long Twitter chat under the hashtag #grillMOL. It did not go to plan.
When asked about the airlines policy of charging £40 to reprint boarding passes. O’Leary replied: “Cos we want u to print it off before arriving at airport. Wud u show up w’out passport?”.
When asked: “Is there any truth in the rumour that you plan to charge passengers for each inhalation they make after take off?” O’Leary responded “Hi Beth, great idea. Have a team workin’ on it as we breathe!”
In recent months low-cost airlines such as Easyjet have attempted to avoid being tarred with the same brush. Easyjet has revisited some of their less popular policies and now allocate seats on check-in at no extra cost. Gone is speedy boarding which caused panic at the terminal as passengers eagerly waited for the gates to open so that they could run to the plane and secure a seat. To be fair, it probably did speed up boarding.
As airline operators attempt to reconnect with customers, it seems that the battle is not yet won. Airbus announced in April 2013 that they plan to reduce the size of their window seats to make room for wider ones in the aisles, thus allowing operators to charge a premium for wider seats.
It doesn’t stop there, Somoa Airlines also became the first airline to charge their passengers based on their weight as opposed to their seat in March 2013. If that sounds too outrageous, you can find out more on their website.
The glimmer of hope is that the premium airlines such as Virgin, Singapore Airlines and Emirates have shifted toward increasing value for customers which could pull up the whole industry as customer’s expectations are raised.