I like to think back to the early days of airline travel. In the days of airline subsidies we had well paid employees, planes flying half full, our choice of seats, table cloths, and edible food in coach. There were happy smiling pilots and stewardesses (that is what we called them in those happier days). If the airline screwed up a reservation they put you up for the night in one of the better downtown hotels, and there were perhaps two dozen airlines to choose from. The TV ads were all about the Friendly Skies and featured the pilots and stewardesses walking out to the plane hand in hand as if they were just married or won the state lottery.
And then the subsidies were cancelled and everyone was told that the airlines would be more competitive and consumers would be awarded with lower fares and the same wonderful service. Little did any of us business travelers know that we would be flying the unfriendly skies from there on in, and we would all witness a long period of decline as the airlines surprised us every year with creative ways to cut costs and reduce services.
The decline really accelerated when the airlines chose a new consumer strategy I refer to as the sardine strategy. This strategy was based on the purchases of thousands of Boeing 737s (the Sardine Liner). The idea was to fly much smaller planes and to always pack them with people by a tactic called over booking. It would insure that every seat was filled on every flight. Even though the seats were smaller and the leg room shorter they would manage to “shoe horn” every person into a seat, no matter what their size.
I vividly remember a time, sitting in the last aisle seat, when I noticed a huge man come into the plane. He was easily an axe handle wide and maybe 400 lbs. I thought, ‘What are the chances of him sitting next to me? After all there are 30 rows before me.’ But soon he was standing next to me and said he had the middle seat. The little girl in the window seat pushed against the window, and I crowded into the aisle as he tried to wedge himself into one and a half seats without a seat belt. That is how we flew 4 hours to Chicago.
But the Sardine liners were only the opening act of a long and dismal airline play. Very soon the table cloths vanished, and we began receiving a type of TV dinner with disposable utensils. Then the TV dinners were replaced by sun chips and pretzels, or other high calorie, inedible snacks. I remember being served some kind of a rice cake on a long coast to coast Delta flight. I closed my eyes when I took a bite and it felt like a Styrofoam hockey puck. I thought that we might have bottomed out on the food insult when they introduced packaged sandwich and chips for $10.00.
During this period several of the airlines had gone bankrupt and the employees were down-graded in pay and retirements. There were no more smiling employees and most airlines achieved even greater cost reduction with a two tier pay system where all new employees would begin at half the salary of an experienced worker. The stewardesses were now flight hostesses and displayed their unhappiness openly to the passengers. I thought many of the hostesses moved around the airplane as if they had a bad case of bleeding hemorrhoids and seemed to wish they were anywhere but on our flight (I couldn’t blame them).
But this era was not over and the airlines were still being creative in their cost cutting strategies. After a lot of mergers and bankruptcies, there were only 5 major airlines. Since they now had formed a monopoly, someone decided that if they could get away with less service at higher prices, why not charge the poor suckers for their bags? I think this worked beyond their wildest dreams and very quickly all airlines got in on the new source of income.
This created a problem on the sardine liners because everybody tries to carry on their bags, but the 737 overhead racks were too small and some unfortunate souls had to check their bags. This meant you had to spend an additional hour at the terminal waiting for the people to bring your bags from the plane. This is a very confusing and upsetting time, because as you wait for your bag you hear people on the other side of the wall yelling as the lift trucks and carts seem to be running at full gas and full brake. I often have visions of a couple of baggage people with a case of beer jousting with their lift trucks as 180 passenger stand around wondering if their bag will make it.
And then when the bag does not appear and you are still standing at the carousel at 3:00 in the morning, you wonder what you should do next. There use to be little rooms near the carousel where a friendly person would help you identify your bag type and tell you when it could be delivered to your house or hotel. But now you pick up a red phone and end up talking to some young lady in New York who sounds like she just woke up and makes you feel guilty about losing your property. She doesn’t give you any delivery time (or even a hope) and says “Hey partner we are not miracle workers, we will send it when we get it.”
Just when we thought the airlines had run out of ways to generate more revenue they sprung the seat assignment trap on us. It works like this –when you make your reservation on line, the airline avoids giving you a seat assignment. If you are persistent they give you the choice of upgrading to a seat a few rows ahead with 2 inches more leg room for $50.00. They may charge you more for a window or an aisle seat, but if you make the mistake of selecting an aisle seat in coach it automatically puts you into the last section to be boarded – the infamous Section 5. These poor travelers are last on the plane and there are no more overhead spaces for their carry-on bags, so they must submit their bags for baggage check. No matter what kind of sad story you tell them about why your bag can’t be checked they look at you with straight teeth and a crooked smile wondering why were you so stupid to end up in Section 5.
Now I come to the new century and it is a time to make some prognostications about the future of airline travel. You don’t have to be a statistician to understand that the trend lines are still going down at a 45 degree angle, and there will be more cost cutting and service reduction from airline strategists.
I predict that in the not-so-distant future, there will be very few airline employees. There will be one pilot, but no employees at the ticket counter or gate. The way it will work is that you print out your ticket on the internet and then when you show up at the gate you check in by scanning your ticket code at scanner in the wall. You won’t have to worry about checking your bags or carrying on a bag because bags won’t be allowed on the plane. All bags will be collected for a jet freighter that will transport them for all flights to the appropriate cities within 48 hours. It will be a new era, where you will have to find ways to include underwear, a suit, and boots in your purse (or a clever fold-out wallet.)
Since there are no employees at the gate, a recording will announce that the aircraft is open for boarding. Everyone will bunch-up into a crowd around the door, and seating will be a matter of your place in the crowd and survival of the strongest. When the alarm goes off, there is an explosion of people down the tunnel running at the plane at full gallop. People with physical disabilities will have to get a head-lock on the person in front and depend on compression pressure to carry them into the cabin.
When the first passengers burst through the airplane door, they find a completely empty fuselage with seat belts bolted to the walls and over head straps like the subway. The first class passenger area is at the rear of the airplane, closest to the free toilets with a water fountain and a kiosk of Sun Chips. The other toilets closer to the front of the plane are for the coach passengers and are all coin operated. Of course there are no over head baggage racks and there are only a few windows back in the first class area. Eventually toilet paper will be sold for 25 cents a square so you will have to carry a lot of change.
The pilot is the only employee on the airplane and he has to check his own oil and wipe his windshield before leaving. Through the wonders of new technology they have created a hybrid airplane that works on both gas and electric, like the Prius. The new plane will be so fuel efficient that they can operate with only two tiny engines on the wings no larger than oil drums. Of course, to get this kind of efficiency requires that the area in the tail is one huge lithium battery that is so heavy the plane has to fly nose up 30 degrees.
Of course, there is always an upside. In the new airliner of the future all alcoholic beverages are free. There are 55 gallon drums of wine, whiskey, and beer up in the front if you can get to them. You may not have a very comfortable trip, but if you can get to the drink barrels often enough you may not care.
Mike Collins is the author of "Saving American Manufacturing" and its companion book, the "Growth Planning Handbook for Manufacturers." To learn more about the author or these titles, visit http://www.mpcmgt.com/.