The Unique Challenge of the North American Passenger Experience

The following blog was written by Brandon Kops, a Business Development Manager at Terrapinn.

“People come back from flights and tell you a story, like it’s a horror story. That’s how bad they make it sound. They’re like, ‘It was the worst day of my life. We didn’t board for 20 minutes and they made us sit there on the runway for 40 minutes.’ Oh really? What happened next? Did you fly in the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight you non-contributing zero?’”

— Louis C.K. 

“People say there’s delays on flights. Delays, really? New York to California in five hours, that used to take 30 years, a bunch of people used to die on the way there, have a baby, you would end up with a whole different group of people by the time you got there. Now you watch a movie and you’re home.”

 –Louis C.K. 

In general, flying sucks. Flying coach on a US carrier…

The World Airline Awards were handed out again this year. Based on the compiled votes of almost 19 million passengers, these rankings are the most prestigious in the industry. In the top category of “Airline of the Year”, Cathay Pacific took the first spot, followed by Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. The list was dominated by Asian, Middle-Eastern and European carriers. Not a single North American airline managed to crack the top 20. And virtually no one was surprised. In truth, when it comes to passenger experience, it’s not even a competition.

And the thing is, maybe that’s ok.

The US airline industry is a monster. In 2013, airlines registered in America carried over 743 million passengers. Next highest was China, with less than half that total. After that, the numbers drop pretty drastically. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), the standard bearer in the industry, flies under 70 million people annually, less than 10% of the US amount.

There are other fundamental differences in the models. Europe and Asia have an abundance of high speed rail. The Middle East carriers, cater predominantly to well-heeled business travelers.

In America, flying is mass transit, in the purest sense of the word. Mass transit is about getting people from point A to B efficiently, quickly and cheaply. The sheer volume of flights, the fact that many of them are short haul journeys and the unique (middle-class) profile of the average American traveler calls for a rethinking of the metrics used to compare airlines.

Comparing an airline that flies predominantly from Dubai to Hong Kong to one that flies mainly from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati is insanity.

Instead of judging US carriers by their international rivals, (who are much smaller, fly longer routes and are packed with business travelers) we should be taking a narrower and perhaps more accurate view.

If AA, Delta or United are not Cathay Pacific or Etihad, that’s ok.

They don’t need to be.

But if AA, Delta or United are not the best possible versions of AA, Delta and United, that is not ok.

9/11 destroyed whatever romance was left in the aviation industry. Long lines, annoying security checks and increasing fares and surcharges are the reality. Without a doubt, the flying experience has gotten progressively worse over the last number of years.

But there is an opportunity there. Maybe a big one.

Technological advances, the relaxing of certain regulations by the FAA and an increased awareness of the importance of passenger experience, has created a window where real change can take place.

The North American industry needs to grab that opportunity. They need to look internally, connect with their passengers and be open to real change.

In the Unites States, flying is mass transit.

And we are exceptionally good at it, getting an enormous amount of people (like Louis CK) to their destinations quickly and safely.

But as far as passenger experience is concerned, it is still mass transit.

And it kind of sucks.

But it doesn’t have to.