Tyler Brûlé had a magnificent column in FT Weekend last week about short-haul flights in Europe and various carriers going under or doing badly. It’s interesting given I used to work on bmibaby, bought by British Airways to consolidate their weekend routes. As Mr. Brule pointed out, Lufthansa is moving more of its short distance flights to Germanwings (their low-cost business) and SAS is definitely feeling the pinch and trying to avoid going into administration. Yet Turkish Airlines has twice been named best European airline, so it is possible to deliver good service.
It begs two questions:
One, do countries even need a flag carrier anymore? There are two things in here: if you’re a big country, you’d want to make sure there’s someone to cover your commuting routes and that you’ll always be connected to the rest of the world, rather than wait and hope someone will fly to you.
Secondly, the one Tyler asked in the article: do any of these managers admire any global carriers or feel passionate about flying at all? You wouldn’t think so, given the experience you get on most of them. Like Henry Mintzberg would say, it’s the art of smiling at you in the front office while they’re rubbing their hands thinking about how to make more money off you in the back office.
Now I’m aware that planes is that they only make money when they’re in the air, but they can’t always fill up seats on all routes – sometimes it may be a good thing in terms of fuel economy. Tyler points out that a lot of this is down to the layout of the planes, twin-engined aircraft with a three-three configuration (Airbus A320, Boeing 737). More seats means more people means more money generally, like trains stripping shops and toilets from coaches. Then you push the marketing drive to make the destination city exciting. “Look at the many things you can visit in Dusseldorf!” they say. “Travel more so you have more stories to tell!” Really? Some carriers are luckier than others with “hero” destinations- in a Bordeaux vs. Frankfurt fight, I know where I’d rather spend my weekend by some distance. The column also points out that there’s very little reason to choose a business class seat over an economy one: the experience is very much the same. On Lufthansa, your seats are the same, just that in business class they don’t sandwich anyone between 2 people.
The same could be said about trains: people pay dearly for the fast route because it makes zero economical sense to cover the same ground in 2 hours instead of 50 minutes. However, George Osborne reminded us that a ticket from Wilmslow to London in 1st class is about £180. The annual season ticket makes you weep ,but the alternative (car) is so much more expensive. And Virgin trains, whatever people say, provide an OK level of comfort and warmth on commuter routes. Think of the places you could fly with that.
Ryanair always used to be the outlier in NPS scores: scoring low on everything other airlines were struggling hard to address through organisation change and communications (customer service, recommend to a friend) and people still flew with them in spite of it all. As long as they made it from A to B, to hell with the free food, children’s crayons and smiley people asking you if you want another drink. When you stop positioning yourself as an ‘airline’ with the pretenses attached and talk about yourself as mere taxi from A to B, people treat you accordingly. You don’t have to like taxis, but you pay for them because you need them.
The herd-like mentality Brule points out applies in train-running too: if First had had their way, they would have stripped the coaches to make room for more seats. It seems counter-intuitive that someone would pay more than £180 for a first class experience, but what business wouldn’t impress someone with a trip on a British Pullman or Northern Belle at £720? However, that solves your problem of travel, expensive lunch and question of ‘how do I entertain my guests?’ that’s worth its weight in gold to some companies. Not all, but you’d only need to sell a small number of super premium routes or have a super premium coach on an existing train to make it worthwhile.
And advertise the shit out of that – look at what they get. Now wouldn’t it be really nice to upgrade to that at the weekend?