26 July 2008
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Disposing of the Airlines, Part 2

I wouldn't want to be a scheduled airline.  That's not just because my arms would get very tired from flying so much, or because all my customers and employees would hate me, or, of course because the terrorists would target me.  (Mind you, being made of carbon fiber and aluminum does have some attraction.  But not enough.)

If I were a scheduled airline, and you told me you wanted to go somewhere, I would just say "give me a thousand dollars and hop on my back.  We'll be on our way tomorrow at noon."  You, being a lot smarter and less hated than I am, would offer the rejoinder "If I don't hop on your back now, your back will be empty tomorrow at noon and you will have to leave without me and my thousand dollars.  You are being a silly, foolish airline indeed!  I will pay you instead fifty dollars tomorrow."  This progresses with passengers and airlines playing a big game of chicken.  The more the passenger cares, the more he is willing to pay for that space on my back before it's taken.  The more the airline cares about having a full back, the lower it makes the price as noon tomorrow approaches. 

What fun!  Or what fun it would be, if this system didn't engender most of the problems that drive the airlines to bankruptcy and the passengers to violence.  Instead, let's decide to do things my way!  Even if I can't get Steve Jobs to listen to me about thin, maybe I can get the airlines to be less thick.

I'm Not Big on Laws, But...

But... that heading is just guaranteed to introduce proposed legislation.  Relax.  My legislation will entertain USDUC, cost the taxpayer little or nothing, and be almost equally offensive to conservatives and liberals.  If you have to have laws, that's the kind to have.

I'm sure you've read the occasional story about a passenger being ejected from his or her flight because of an inappropriate clothing item, such as a T-shirt that offers anatomically improbable suggestions or excoriates our president for some naughty deed, real or imagined.  Or perhaps the ejection is because someone isn't wearing an appropriate item, and leaves a bit too much skin visible.  I'm not looking for a constitutional confrontation, or even going to argue about taste.  My proposed law is about baseball caps.  Upon passage, Congress will appropriate a few million dollars to buy special baseball caps, no doubt manufactured in the USA by union laborers.  These caps will have small, transparent plastic pouches where the team logo is normally placed.  When the passenger's boarding pass is printed, the amount he paid for his flight or flight segment will be printed in at least 36-point type on a standardized section of the pass.  When the passenger goes through security, a government employee will use a special tool to clip off this section and put it in the pouch on the baseball cap.  The passenger will then take the hat, put it on, and be required to wear it at least until the aircraft reaches cruising altitude.  Of course, special arrangements must be made for those whose religious convictions prevent them from wearing baseball caps. 

Once passengers are forced to confront the ridiculous variety of prices paid by their fellow travelers for exactly the same (lack of) service, there will be a revolution.  The airlines will be forced to rationalize their polices before they are laughed to death.  In addition, there will be any number of new opportunities for in-flight entertainment.  The air hostesses could scan the aisles and seat the person with the cheapest fare next to the person with the most expensive.  Or an individual could search for someone who paid the same amount as he did, and be rewarded by a free snack in the extremely unlikely event he found one.  Certainly "fare bingo" would be a good possibility, and would enliven an otherwise boring trip.

Q:  Richard, do you really believe that this hat scheme will solve the airlines' problems?
A:  Of course not, but I'm entitled to take a silly break before actually solving them. 
Q:  Get on with it, then.

OK.  The real airline problem is one shared by other scheduled events, such as movies and concerts.  It's not the airlines, it's the schedules!  If you sell tickets and commit to fly at noon, your airplane will fly at noon, whether you are compensated by enough paying passengers or not.  And the cost of flying an airplane with empty seats is ruinous.  If you could just wait a little longer for enough people to show up to fill the airplane, you'd make some money!  If you read a bit more of the Elliott blog than I quoted yesterday, you found that I added this to the trailing comments. 

On April 22nd, 2008 at 8:24 am Richard Factor said

Looks like I accidentally started this entry with my email to Mr. Elliott. And it looks like there’s a lot of agreement about just how nasty a problem flying has become. I like to look for solutions to problems rather than whining about them all the time. My “solution” to most of MY travel woes is to just stay home unless a trip is essential. But that doesn’t solve the airlines’ problems, which are largely caused by their seemingly inescapable business model: Fill the seats before the plane takes off, or forever lose the revenue.

Their method, which involves a variable pricing structure, “rules,” restrictions, Saturday-night stayovers, and virtuoso nickel-and-diming, is guaranteed to engender hatred from all but the most phlegmatic or stoic. I actually have a candidate solution, at least for heavily-travelled routes, and it is this:

1: Get rid of schedules. Just have a gate for LAX, a gate for SFO, a gate for MIA, and a gate for any other city where you can fill up an airplane in an hour.

2: Share that gate among airlines. (Let them fight each other for it - leave me out of it!)

3: No advance reservations or purchase, no different fares, and charge for luggage by weight, since that’s a true expense the airlines must bear. Pay at the gate and board immediately.

If this seems similar to a bus, so mote it be. The plane flies full and profitably, everybody pays the same and flies when they want to. Never rush for the plane or worry about security taking too long - there’s no “your flight” to miss.

Will this work? I honestly don’t know. I’m hardly an expert in airline operations (or much of anything else) and it clearly won’t work in cases where there’s a low volume of traffic since it would tie up a plane, passengers, and gate for many hours. But if it will work, or even if it might, I’d love to see it tried. Surely the airlines have enough smart people, even if they keep them hidden, to realize that the current situation is unstable and untenable.

I hope the principle is obvious, but let me elaborate just a bit.  Let's say you're going from NY to LA at noon.  At present, your schedule looks like this:

Not Scheduling Saves Your Time

You live an hour from the airport, but you know that sometimes traffic can be slow, so you budget an hour and a half to get there.  You know that you can usually go through security in 10-15 minutes, but sometimes it takes the full "please arrive an hour before your flight" to do it.  So you must get to the airport an hour early.  That means you must leave the house 2-1/2 hours before your flight at noon, or 09:30. 

Now consider the no-schedule scenario.  A flight takes off every hour.  When you get to the gate, you might be the first on or the last on,  so your average wait, combining time at the gate and in the plane, should be about half an hour.  But, because you aren't trying to make a particular flight, you don't have to account either for heavy traffic or unusual security lines.  You leave yourself the hour it actually takes to get to the airport, spend an average 15 minutes at security, and an average half-hour waiting at the gate.  In other words, to get to LA at about the same time, now you can leave your house at 10:15, and most days you'll be on time.  On the days everything is against you, you'll be an hour later, but you won't care because you won't have been gritting your teeth due to the traffic and security delays.   (And maybe you'll get to keep the baseball cap, too!)

Good For You, Good for the Airlines

On very heavily travelled routes, this will (on average) save passengers a lot of time.  But even if the route isn't that heavily travelled, it will work.  If you can fill a plane every two hours, it's about a break even on the passenger's time.  Longer than that and you can start compressing the flights, e.g., every two hours in the morning and the evening, but none between noon and 17:00.  Of course at some point, on thinly travelled routes, reverting to schedules will be necessary.  But the chances are that most of the routes you fly are heavily travelled (think about it) and it will work out well.  Meanwhile, the airlines can survive, since they know their airplanes will be full (by definition,) and they can charge a uniform, fair and profitable price to all their passengers.  And, they will have no incentive to inquire where you are on Saturday night.

Will this solve the "cattle car" problem?  In a sense it will.  You know that every time you fly somewhere you get tense hoping nobody will sit next to you and crowd your personal space.  With this plan there's no more tension!  You know they will crowd you, and you can stop worrying about it.  Learn to be comfortable in a sardine can and all will be well.

Oil or water, sir?

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NP:  "Hunger for Love" - Crabby Appleton

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Richard Factor

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