New Year’s Advice for the Airlines
Some other veteran frequent international travelers may share my feeling that air travel is nowhere near as much fun as it used to be, and there’s not much relief in sight.
It’s a fact that long-haul airline flights and airports are very easy places to catch a cold or flu. This is nothing new, but it has been exacerbated by today’s larger aircraft carrying more passengers (and therefore, more germs).
My own observation, based mainly on anecdotal experience, is that on an average day, a much higher percentage of air travelers in greater China are suffering from respiratory ailments than was the case a few years ago. If so, the probability of contagion has also increased. Ask any general medical practitioner in Hong Kong or Beijing about the increase in respiratory ailments among their patients in recent years. (Then look out the window at the air quality and wonder why.)
The cost of most international tickets is rising quickly. Airlines continue to struggle with rising fuel costs and other serious challenges to their profitability.
In an effort to reverse the chronic tide of red ink, many airlines — especially in Europe and the U.S. — are resorting to creative new ways of charging for what they euphemistically refer to as “ancillary services” (e.g. pillows, blankets, potato chips, checked luggage, etc.).
More intrusive security measures at international airports may or may not be effective at catching bad guys, but they are certainly effective at slowing things down for everyone else, making it less fun in the process. I’m not complaining. That’s simply a fact. Plus immigration queues in many airports are very long and very slow-moving.
The situation for hapless long-haul international passengers might thus be summed up as: pay more, get less, wait longer, and maybe get sick in the process. Hurray! What’s wrong with this picture?!
Apart from business travel, I choose to take less long-haul flights for tourist purposes than I did ten years ago. It’s not a question of money or time, it’s a question of enjoyment. I enjoy them far less than I used to; so why face the hassle, especially when it’s time to relax? To the extent that countries value tourism income, they should pay attention to this phenomenon.
I’m not blaming the situation entirely on airlines. They are in a tough business, highly and often irrationally regulated, and they are scrambling to combat high fuel and other operating costs. I hope they succeed. Management will need to think out of the box to do so, and regulators will need more enlightened thinking as well.
One piece of advice to airlines would be that they further adopt the principle of “user pays” in their pricing. “Ancillary fees” are already a step in this direction, but the current approach is inconsistent.
For example, the basis of calculation for passenger ticket fares seems illogical to me. Why should a passenger weighing 60 kg. pay the same fare as one weighing 120 kg.? Fuel costs are a huge part of airline operating costs, so, in effect, very large people are travelling at a very big discount. If air courier charges were not based on the weight of the parcel, express delivery companies would be losing their shirts.
Small regional carriers do sometimes charge a premium for obese people, by requiring them to buy two seats rather than one, but the parameters of this principle should be extended more widely (so to speak).
As for all these new “ancillary fees”, I don’t like them; but I’m guessing that we’ll seeing more and more of them in future: charges for carry-on bags, bathroom visits (perhaps smart toilets are next), reading lamp usage, slippers, amenity kits — the possibilities are many.
Another frontier for new revenue to airlines might be niche marketing of new premium inflight seating zones. Thus far, in addition to First, Business, and Economy, we’ve already seen the emergence of Premium Economy (larger seats) and other variations on this theme.
Another new seating zone could perhaps be “Sick Bay”: located in Economy, at the back of the cabin, insulated from the rest of the cabin by a clear plastic sheet, with dedicated toilets. These premium priced seats would be reserved for sneezers, coughers, and those with moderately high temperatures.
And what about “Wide Load” seats for individuals weighing above a certain amount? Charged at a “loading” premium, of course, these could be wider, for added comfort and support.
Another new revenue stream might arise from affinity groups. Passengers could be offered the option, at a premium price, to be seated with like-minded folks. For example, Manchester United football fans, Occupy Wall Street supporters, Protesting Villagers, Harvard Business School alums, Peking University graduates, and so on. Inflight entertainment systems could be wired to allow inflight social networking to take place: LinkedIn meets QQ meets Facebook meet RenRen, at 35,000 feet.
The mind boggles. All I know for sure is that the airlines and their regulators better think of something before too long.
Meanwhile, buy shares in companies in the video conferencing space as well as those in the local tourism business.
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