The Problem with Flying… A Lack of Innovation?


Up, Up, and Away

As I get settled into 2012 and prepare for my first business trip of the new year, I find myself smiling on the outside, with knowledge that I now possess Platinum Medallion status on Delta Airlines.  This satisfaction quickly sours as I bite my lip until it bleeds and shed a tear when thinking back on 2011’s travel schedule.

Question: So what did 55 flights and nearly 90,000 miles teach me?

Answer: The real problem with air travel is the simple task of getting on and off of the airplane.  

Furthermore, I contend that the solutions to the issues causing so much passenger consternation are fully within the control of the airlines.  As a matter of fact, the airlines have largely created what appears to be the biggest contributor to the problem – baggage fees.

Baggage Fees

When I say that Baggage Fees are an issue, I don’t mean in the traditional, monetary sense, rather in the human behaviors it has created as a result.  By lowering prices slightly (and temporarily I might add), then adding on the “optional” baggage fees, the consumer has now been given an incentive to not check their bags.  This leads to slower TSA screening, crowded gate areas, and difficult boarding.  To exacerbate the issue, the aircraft crew most often does not actively manage the boarding process and participate in helping passengers load bags into the overhead properly, resulting in the space being woefully mismanaged.

So for those not fortunate enough to be in the front half of the line, they are left searching for a place to put their bag, most often behind them, which leads to swimming upstream like a salmon to retrieve one’s bag once the plane “has come to a complete stop”.  The fear of not securing adequate overhead space for what you know is a bag way too big, leads to cattle herding around the gate when the first boarding announcement is made.  While it is not exactly a mosh pit, it does take some diplomacy to squeeze through.  In some cases this is still better than the dreaded gate check, which most certainly adds to delayed deplaning for all parties.  I believe the ease at which a passenger can handle this gauntlet correlates directly to how often they fly, but could easily be improved if there were no bag fees and/or better load management by the flight crew.

The Infrequent Flyer

The Infrequent Flyer has the deck stacked against them from the get go, and it all starts with security screening.  The TSA will tell you the disparate and inconsistent procedures from airport to airport are part of the protocol to “keep terrorists on their toes”, but I’m not buying it.  Once successfully through security, the Infrequent Flyer is faced with a boarding pass that contains about 10 times more information than anyone needs.  I’d like to see the paper boarding passes more closely resemble the smartphone version: Destination, Flight Number, Time, Gate, Seat #, and a Bar Code.  The other 300 characters of text do nothing but confuse the Infrequent Traveler.  As pointed out above, the cattle herding at the gate will not cease  until the baggage issue is solved, so I am not expanding on that any further.  Once aboard the plane, the flight crew should take some pride in ownership of the boarding process and make sure that every bag that comes on board is stowed properly – that might mean moving up and down the aisle and physically turning suitcases around in the overheads and even removing smaller items for passengers to put under the seat in front of them.  Do you just let your kids throw the suitcases in the trunk before a road trip?  Of course not – you know they will not all fit unless you assist in loading.

Lack of Design Innovation

At the end of the day, the Baggage Fee issue will likely resolve itself when the airline realizes that the entire baggage hold on the plane is mow empty and they can install seats and market them as “steerage” or “super economy class” – now that’s innovation – better bring your mittens.  Kidding aside, we all know that innovation in the airline industry does not have a great track record.  Sure, some amenities have improved like  individual media/entertainment centers, lay down beds, satellite TV and in-flight Wi-Fi, but who are we kidding.  If you showed even the newest model Airbus or Boeing to Howard Hughes or Charles Lindbergh, they would likely shrug their shoulders and say “it’s an airplane, so what?”.

I don’t know if I read it somewhere in the past or what (I would hate to take credit), but someone needs to ask Disney or NASA how they would design an aircraft that could load passengers and carry-on bags more efficiently.  The problem is that it is almost too late now – all airports are being designed to accommodate what has become  a “standard” aircraft configuration – “single tiny door (maybe 2) connected to the airport terminal via retractable jet bridge, loaded in a single file fashion”.  Makes me cringe reading back what I just wrote.  Imagine if we loaded trains that way.  What if airplanes opened up with gull wings, and passengers could be loaded in multiple queues – even if not an opening for each seat, what if there was a door every 10 rows?  Think about how quickly you can get off and on a roller coaster!

What if all passenger loading and securing of carry-ons happened inside of the terminal in a “pod” that was then lifted and placed inside of the awaiting airplane through doors like those on the Space Shuttle cargo bay or sliding it into the plane through an open nose cone?

Certainly we can design a plane with enough structural rigidity to pull this off and maintain cabin pressure and comfort?  Treat me like cargo please.

Come on man.

Tell me what you think – is innovation in commercial aircraft design the answer?

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Upcoming Blog Topics – Brazil, Negotiation, and Air Travel


As we start a new year, I resolve to write more frequently – but make no promises!  I am literally brimming with ideas but no time to turn them into written words.   Over the Christmas break I was able to reflect a bit on some things experienced during my travels in the first part of December – keep an eye out for upcoming articles on the following topics:

  • Brazil Observations
    • Christmas in Sao Paulo
    • Sushi, Pizza, and Hot Wings
    • Orange Juice Prices
    • Expansion of consumer credit
  • Negotiating in a foreign country
    • Pick your battles
    • Recognize when you have no leverage
    • Be willing to barter
    • In most cases, A deal is better than NO deal
  •  The REAL problems with air travel – BOARDING
    • Carry-Ons vs Baggage Fees
    • Infrequent Flyers
    • Lack of Design Innovation

Thanks for you support – and keep on reading!

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