The latest Future of Aviation is, again, worrisome


As has become something of a tradition the Teague design studio presented its vision of the future for air travel at the APEX Expo this week in Portland, Oregon. In kicking off the session Devin Liddell explained that he intended to be provocative and he most certainly was. Rather than talking about the theoretical Nike/NBA plane which has no real practical application for commercial travel this year’s presentation was of “poppi” airlines, the new, theoretical carrier representing the Group’s ideal vision of a future airline. I’m very, very confused about how these ideas came to pass.

Liddell started of by suggesting that airline loyalty is mostly a myth. And that’s somewhere between actually true and should be true. For most passengers loyalty to a particular airline is a spectacularly asymmetrical investment, one which almost never pays off. Rather than walking away from that loyalty, however, Liddell suggested that airlines should try to recapture it. A big part of that was in the form of pre-paid bookings or ticket packages. Of course, though things exist today for some carriers but Liddell also suggested that airlines could make additional revenue by taking a cut if they allowed passengers to resell non-refundable tickets the way sports leagues do. No word on whether the airlines would make more with that cut of resale versus the current oversales model which allows the airline to collect fully on the seat both times rather than only once plus a little bit the second time.

Liddell also talked about the ever growing assortment of fees associated with air travel today. He suggests that “Bag fees are a fine for doing business with [airlines]” but also that the airlines do a poor job in providing real value for those fees. And somehow the solution is to simply remove bags from the cabin. He alluded to the 707 which had hat racks rather than baggage bin overhead and reminded the crowd of the “Golden Age of Air Travel” which somehow is supposed to make us believe that because people in the photos from that era are smiling it means we should not need bags in the cabin. Removing bags leads to a more open cabin space – higher ceilings – and also a lighter cabin with the attendant fuel savings. It skips over the part where you need to get safety features like oxygen masks in to the cabin without bins overhead. And, more critically, the part where people have stuff they use during the flight.

Oh, and because the goal is to create tighter branding and ancillary benefits the airlines would be able to sell bags which specifically are designed to “snap in” to the seats if you pay a bit extra. Ryanair, Spirit Airlines and others are ahead of the curve on this front. And it is unclear how better branding on the bag (and paying extra for it) will make passengers happier to pay to carry it on board. But, as Liddell noted, it is a great opportunity for an ancillary fee.

There was discussion of marketing tie-ins, working to create a brand which people want to buy rather than just transportation. Yes, Pan Am today has marketing draw but it is unclear that there is truly a market to be made for ancillaries in a currently operating carrier.

Similarly there was suggestion that middle seats would get marketing tie-ins to encourage people to purchase those seats. Very few people purposefully choose a middle seat these days but very few also choose to buy a trip only based on seat assignment. Getting a free t-shirt for riding in the middle seat seems unlikely to shift that purchase pattern.

Going back to the baggage situation, another suggestion from Liddell was to get rid of the baggage claim carousels and the great “waste of space” they represent. Of course, they’re also highly automated and, as it turns out, spectacularly efficient at moving large volumes of bags to designated locations with minimal human intervention. Delivering bags to lockers would be more secure and allow travelers to leverage embedded tracking via RFID or whatever the next gen of that tech is. But it also means a significantly higher human investment at a time when companies are trying to automate more to make service more consistent and convenient.

I asked Liddell why any of this stuff was good for me as a passenger versus just benefiting the airline. He did not have an answer for that.

Maybe these ideas aren’t all bad. Maybe some of it could be useful to airlines. But loyalty is far from dead. And pretending that carry-on bags are the cause of all the troubles for passengers is downright crazy.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

4 Comments

  1. The comment about airline as lifestyle brand is interesting — It seems to me like Delta’s new commercial of “why we fly” kind’ve lends itself toward trying to broach the topic… Still a long ways off from Pan Am though.

  2. I would be much more likely to check a bag if:

    A. I knew my bag would actually make it onto the same plane I’m on.
    B. The baggage handling system didn’t cause damage to my luggage – and I’m talking sturdy, FA-type bags, nothing frou-frou. I’ve watched baggage handlers damage a wheelchair that was stuck on a rail by tugging on it until the arm bent, rather than walking 5 feet to put it properly on the conveyor.
    C. I wasn’t standing anxiously by a carousel for up to an hour waiting for my bag to show up, wondering if someone has taken it, whether by mistake or on purpose.

    Yes, I recognize that not all of these issue are under the control of the airline, but the bottom line of a successful airline is to move people in a way that makes the feel comfortable. Doing away with carry-on bags without addressing the reasons behind a passenger’s unwillingness to check those bags is a problem.

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