Can we fix travel?

Two parts to my theory here.

One is that the airline business is sucky for reasons the airlines can’t fix by themselves.

The other is that only customers can fix it for them.

The reason airlines are sucky is that they treat customers as cargo rather than as human beings. Of course they don’t think and talk that way, but that’s what it comes down to. Cargo comes in a limited variety of shapes, sizes and routing needs, and passengers are treated accordingly.

The problem is that passengers are human beings. All human beingss are different. That’s why they look different, have different fingerprints, different DNA, different interests and proclivities, and so on.

There are certain identicalities that need to be factored in, of course. We’re all likely to be wearing clothes, able to communicate, and have to go to the toilet every once in awhile. We have minimum needs for comfort and service. But after that the variations go way up.

But big businesses such as airlines need to keep the variables down for the sake of efficiency alone. So they make templates of travelers and choices, and try to match those up. All businesses do this to some degree. (Even health care, as I discovered earlier this year.)

Some, such as I, are travelers (frequent in my case) who have peculiar needs that are actually not hard to fill. In particular I want a window seat away from the wing. I would like to be able to look for the seat I want on any airline.  I am willing to select an airline based on being able to get the seat I want, and I am willing to pay something extra for that, even if it’s with an airline I don’t frequently fly.

This “something extra” is money left on the table right now. I am certain there are plenty of flyers with requirements just a unusual as mine.

Today airlines are starting to charge extra for the variables they know well: food, for example, and seat changes. US Airways, which I flew a couple times recently, charges even for water, and for seat changes. While I’m unlikely to pay for those, I am likely to pay for getting the seat I want in the first place.

On United, where I am a IK (greater than 100,000 miles per year) flyer, I get some privileges, which I appreciate; but none of them include being able to upgrade to a seat I want on business class. Since in most cases I already have a seat chosen in economy class, I won’t put in for an upgrade, because I can’t specify seat preference. United assumes that all business class seating is desirable, so they don’t bother with that, unless you’re asking in person at the counter or the gate at the airport. So I usually go without the upgrade. The money left on the table here is what I’m willing to pay for a window seat in business class. It’s a lot more than nothing. It’s even more than the frequent-flying certificates I usually accumulate and spend for upgrades.

What we need to create are the means by which flyers store and publish their preferences, in forms that airlines can see and address if they like. This is just one example of what can be done with a combination of personal data stores, selective disclosure, and policies set personally rather than corporately — policies that can be read in a standard way and acted upon.

What’s key is that the customer needs to be the point of integration and origination for his or her own data, and that he or she have selective control over the disclosure of personal requests and requirements, with clear terms of use and service.

None of this would have come up for me if I hadn’t just had an unhappy experience talking with Lot Polish and Swiss airlines. I’ll be flying on both in the coming weeks. I booked them through United, which is a partner of theirs through Star Alliance. (I am “Star Alliance Gold”, for what that’s not worth.) But because I did not book with them, they refuse to give me any choice of seats except at the gate. This not only sucks, but makes me not want to fly on those airlines. I assume they do this stuff to subordinate flyers from other airlines to frequent flyers on their own. But I don’t know. All I know is that, given a choice in the future, I won’t be flying with them.

Anyway, I’ll be in the UK from Sunday to Wednesday, and will be talking with VRM folks over there about all kinds of stuff, including the ideas I’m floating here.

Looking forward to seeing many of you at the VRM Hub on Monday.


  1. Adriana

    Doc, just a small correction. The link you used for VRM Hub is the wiki used for sign up for our evening meetings that take place every last Thursday of the month.

    On Monday I am doing a VRM Hub conference called Unlocking the see-saw, details are here:

    See you on Sunday at the speakers’ dinner beforehand. 🙂

  2. Doc Searls

    Thanks, Adriana. Just fixed it.

  3. Scott

    Doc, we should fly together. I like aisle seats somewhat near the wing. We’ll never fight over the same seat.

    I’ve found the international airlines don’t allow anyone to pick seats excepting very far ahead of the trip and even then with a lot of constraints. I think it is just part of their security norms or seat sales optimization (larger planes, lots of seats, need to reliably know where 1, 2, 3 or more together are available to be able to sell the most seats). Happens to me whether I book with them or not and whether I’m in their program or not.

  4. vinnie mirchandani

    for starters, let’s quit protecting domestic aviation from foreign competition in the name of “national security”. The majors and their unions and their lobbyists will bitch and moan but like Virgin’s US product is raising the bar, be nice for Singapore Air, India’s Jet Air, Qantas and others to be allowed to compete here and for US consumers to see the best of of what Boeing and Airbus have to offer

    Second, let’s quit bailing the majors out. It is unfair to airlines like Southwest which has made money for 30+ years while keeping customers and employees reasonably happy.

    Also, we need to encourage newer US airlines to rep the US flag on overseas flights. It is a shame to see our biggest Delta just introduce flat beds when others have offered it for years. And wi-fly and entertainment and other innovations

  5. Doc Searls

    Agree, vinnie.

    When Obama pressures other countries to open up to American products (Korea comes to mind), he needs to lighten the restrictions we impose as well. Airlines are one of those places.

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