What’s the one thing airlines can’t deliver? Faster travel.
Believe me, I know: I travel 300 days a year. I’ve experienced just about everything airlines have to offer (except a crash, knock on wood!). I’ve seen Aeroflot personnel use chewing gum to stop ice-cold wind from entering the cabin. I’ve also experienced Singapore Airlines, where the pampered traveler starts to believe the marketing hype: The sky really is the limit!
So I feel I’m in a good position to make three predictions about the future of air travel.
The airline industry has separated into two camps: the ultraplush and the ultrasqueezed. Just as Whole Foods and Louis Vuitton deliver high quality and service in exchange for a premium price, so do a few airlines. All the rest are still trying to squeeze most of their customers in like cattle while offering a modicum of comfort for those willing to pay. But mark my words. These be-everything-to-everyone airlines won’t last, for the simple reason that unions, infrastructure, and marketing costs will force every airline to make a stand. Each must either go discount or go luxury. On the luxury end, Etihad Airways now offers a two-room suite with a full-time butler. Emirates Airlines is following suit. Expect to see airborne laundry, spas, and casinos.
Discount flight will also be redefined. Believe it or not, passengers may be asked to work in exchange for discount tickets. “Microwork” is already in the testing stages. People waiting for a subway or riding on the bus spend that “wasted” time completing simple tasks like matching photos with texts or monitoring content for inappropriate phrases. In the future, an airline like EasyJet or Allegiant may offer you an obscenely cheap airfare in exchange for completing a certain amount of work during your flight.
There’s a new wrinkle in airline pricing: auctions. Airlines like Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic have already introduced auctions that allow holders of economy tickets to upgrade to business or first class. Now travel websites are lining up airlines to sell seats by auction.
These days, the three major airline alliances—Oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam—contain a mixed bag of airlines, but the alliances contain very few truly discount airlines. Ideally, discount airlines should team up to share marketing, distribution outlets, and an audience that currently jumps from airline to airline without much loyalty. Walmart shoppers are loyal, so why not discount travelers?
The discount market represents a neglected segment in the air and on the ground. Customers willing to search the Internet to find the cheapest airline ticket are likely just as obsessed with retail coupons. This worldwide in-the-air-and-on-the-ground alliance could utilize retailers’ databases to promote travel. In return, the airlines would promote all the good stuff available on the ground.
As the world becomes ever more interconnected, niche segments begin to make sense. Airlines should be paying attention to all sorts of “frills.”
Who has a good word to say about airline food? It’s too carb-heavy, it isn’t gluten-free, it ignores your Paleo or South Beach diet, it’s not filling, or it’s just plain awful. These days, I’m seeing lots of passengers bringing on their own picnic lunches. They are the same consumers willing to pay a premium price at Whole Foods and Eataly. Should airlines see an opportunity here?
What about dog and cat lovers? Cat cafés, dog spas, and cat hotels are popping up all over the world. Don’t you think pet owners would pay for a decent airline trip for their pet, if it were available?
And what about bacteria? Consider how many people have leaned against your armrest. Or consider the chances—in my experience, nearly 100%—that the person seated beside you has a cold.
Soon, I predict, there’ll be a market for sterilized seats, virus screens, extra-clean lavatories, and a whole array of frills the airlines haven’t even thought of yet.
Science-fiction movies once predicted two-hour trans-Atlantic flights. New York to L.A.? An hour or so. Yet we’re flying hardly faster than we were 50 years ago—and even less comfortably. So keep an eye out next time you buy a ticket or board a jetliner. You may not be going any faster, but I’ll bet you’re going to see many other changes.