Jeff Jarvis answers Steve Baker’s question in fascinating fashion, imagining a commercial flight experience that’s designed to be more social not only in meatspace terms but also on a digital basis. I think we’d all benefit from his suggestions. And the notion that customers become members of an airline community is not so far-fetched: Virgin Airlines explicitly goes for this effect, and I recently participated in a focus group for United Platinum Executive members where we all expressed an oddly fierce devotion to the company.
Jarvis’s photo brings back memories of those halcyon days when my family used to rush up to the lounge to get the good hanging-out seats and the free packs of playing cards on the UA HNL-LAX run. Of course, they couldn’t compete on price back then so they had to think up other advantages. (A 20-ounce latte to the first person who can find me an online video of the old Western Airlines ad: “Coffee beans, cha cha cha…”)
No latte for me, as I could only find the “Kirk and Spock” ad:
“Why does that look familiar?”
“Because we’ve been there”
I would say on the technology side, Moore’s law (and similar laws regarding data storage and network bandwidth) has significantly affected the airline industry.
Now I, a consumer, can see every open seat on a plane. I can check fares for multiple airlines, at multiple departure times, on multiple days.
From the airline perspective, revenue management is much easier with the MIPS, TPS, and other quanta of computing afforded by Moore’s law. So are irregular operations, the dreaded term which signifies the snowstorm in Chicago has throw the regular schedule over the proverbial rail.
Up front, digital text messages have replaced many required radio transmissions. Computer optimized routings make the wind your friend when traveling east, and less you enemy when traveling west. LCD screens present the information a pilot used to have to get from dozens of gauges and dials. Even the terrain below is presented via a database. And the thousands of pages of paper charts are now replaced with a flash disk in what is called an “Electronic Flight Bag”.
Sure, we don’t feel the difference. But image what it would be like if the number of people flying today were flying in 1970? It is sort of like how Moore’s law has given us the wonders of automated voice attendants, and how Gilder’s law has given human customer service agents a distinctly Hindi accent.
In other words, it is indeed Moore’s law which has allowed a very crowded, but very cheap airline travel system to happen.
Excellent points. After all, once the airlines were allowed to compete on price, they quickly found ways to squeeze out inefficiency. Remembering those awful ticket counter lines, I still marvel at the 2-minute check-in process that I perform myself — from home if I wish. And the airlines do constantly look for other bases on which to add value, such as touting their Starbucks coffee served on board. (Some of this is due not only to Moore’s law, of course, but also to the “invisible hand”.)
Jarvis has some additional suggestions, though, that get the customers in on the act — making them more active participants both within the airline process and with their fellow passengers.
(I never saw those Kirk-and-Spock ads the first time around — they’re wonderful!)
The commercial aviation industry is almost up against a severe bottleneck: runway space.
You’re not going to alleviate that with technology.
I had thought the biggest bottleneck was in air traffic control — due to ancient technology. But I’m far from an expert… It’s certainly true that it’s gotten harder and harder to build or expand airports in the U.S.
This quite readable report describes the US airports which will likely not keep up with their anticipated passenger/cargo demand over the next 20 years, based on their current construction forecasts:
“An Analysis of Airports and Metropolitan Area Demand and Operational Capacity in the Future” 2007-2025. 23 pages + appendcies
I’m a 650-hour instrument-rated private pilot who flies a lot in busy airspace (eastern Canada and the NE U.S.), and I can confirm that Eric’s right — ATC handles the enroute traffic fine (and traffic into smaller airports), even with their stale technology. The problem is almost 100% lack of runway space at busy hubs combined with irresponsible scheduling that makes no allowance for airport capacity or even the slightest weather problems.
The airlines deliberately overschedule flights into the busy hubs so that they’ll look like they have better service. There’s no incentive for any one airline to act responsibly, because its competitors will still overschedule and will look like they have better service, even if they end up canceling a lot of the flights in the end.
David– Thanks for weighing in with your experience! I’ve noticed the overscheduling, mostly in the breach when they delay or cancel flights. A tragedy of the commons effect, sounds like.
Mark– That report is indeed remarkably readable. It looks like the airports with the largest throughput (the big hubs) are the ones in most dire need of additional capacity, with the NY area under under immediate stress. The report doesn’t explicitly say what non-physical constraints exist, but I imagine zoning, NIMBY, and other “business” constraints tend to get in the way. (When I lived one town away from Bedford, MA, most residents were dead set against Hanscom Field expanding its commercial flights because of noise worries. I would have been delighted to avoid the Logan trek! Gotta say I love my new home base of SeaTac.)
Sadly, the top result in searching for that silly airline ad is now this post. I was sure I’d unearthed it on YouTube or similar sometime in the last year. Sigh.