Flying Back To Basics

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by Mark Lacter

A seasoned airline executive was laying out the industry's complexities for me over lunch a while back, using the restaurant's cutlery as planes. So much cash must be sucked in week after week (aircraft, labor, fuel, gate positions) and so many variables determine whether the plane gets you there on time (weather, traffic control, maintenance) that it's little wonder airlines file for bankruptcy or get bought up. After a glass or two of wine, the guy leaned over to me and whispered, "It's the worst goddamn business on the face of the earth."

For my money, the worst business on the face of the earth is moviemaking not only because it's so expensive and involves so many tender egos but because success or failure is dependent on fickle tastes that are impossible to anticipate. Airlines have some special challenges, no doubt about it, but success is not quite so capricious. Much of it still comes down to providing decent service, and, perhaps more important, a sense among customers that they're getting their money's worth.

Which, of course, seldom happens these days on American, United, Delta or US Air and judging from the industry's freefall and the recent cutbacks announced by these major carriers, it's about to become even rarer.

New surcharges on checking in oversized bags that could run up to $270, or more than the cost of the bag itself. More limits on in-flight meals and beverage service. Fewer flights and with it, more crowded planes. Longer times between connections. Prohibiting passengers with nonrefundable tickets from flying standby or catching later flights. Charging up to $25 for the issuance of a paper ticket.

These are the acts of a business in chaos and they won't go down well, not only because they are onerous but because they fly in the face of what the major carriers have marketed all these years providing full service.

That means a business traveler being able to catch a flight to Detroit on a couple of hour's notice. It means attending your nephew's wedding in Oklahoma City and being back in the office by Monday morning. It means being served a hot meal if you're traveling cross-country. It means clean rest rooms, attentive service, convenient connections, efficient check-in and baggage claim, and employees willing and able to handle anything that goes wrong.

A full-service airline, in short, is supposed to provide all the comforts and conveniences of a full-service hotel, even if it requires paying a few more bucks for the privilege. If those offerings cannot be met on a routine basis, then it's not full-service anymore and the customer feels cheated.

You seldom feel cheated on Southwest, which has never pretended to be a full-service carrier. Consider, after all, first come-first seated, no meals, no classes, no movies, no music and lousy seats. But when it comes to the important stuff getting you from here to there Southwest somehow instills a sense of urgency among pilot and ticket agent alike. You just know they will do everything possible to open those doors on time. Passengers walk off a little bedraggled but sensing that they've gotten a good deal.

There's no telling what's in store for the major carriers. More bankruptcy filings are likely, as is further consolidation. For whoever's left standing here's some advice: start acting like a full-service carrier reliable, affordable, and, yes, even profitable.



Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at mlacter@labusinessjournal.com.

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