Airline Industry Summer Strategy: Have lessons been learned?

“As an airline, if you’re not excited about summer, you’re in the wrong business,” said Mike Van de Ven, Southwest’s chief operating officer. In other words, if you cannot handle the heat get out of the kitchen. This summer, airport crowds are expected to be the largest in the U.S. since 2008. In 2012, all airline flights including regional had an average 76.1% on-time flight arrivals (flight stats analytics WSJ). That will not “fly” this summer.

image_security_linesWhat method of forcasting informed Airlines that airport crowds are expected to be higher than recent years?

United had a terrible summer last year—only 67.9% of flights arrived on-time in summer months. Customer complaints soared. The airline blamed computer system problems related to its merger with Continental Airlines and an attempt to schedule planes and crews more tightly. The plan backfired because it created longer delays and widespread disruption when tighter schedules couldn’t be met. The use of Gantt charts to schedule turnover time is a simple strategy Airlines use. They are constantly coming up with new ways of speeding up this complex process. Southwest does not have to purchase many Airlines because of how fast they can turnover planes. They plan to use spare airplanes this summer to accommodate stuck travelers more quickly. Southwest plans to routinely keep operating late into the night rather than cancel flights on stormy days. This is a contributor to why Southwest is a leader in customer satisfaction.

What is a disadvantage to scheduling each project to tight with each other?

United says they are better prepared for summer because it has more staff and better scheduling. In addition, the airline has rolled out new graphics screens for its computer system to make it easier and faster for airport agents to use. United also is introducing new boarding lanes at gate areas. Five different boarding groups will line up in different areas, similar to how Southwest lines up customers by groups, so that each group will have a designated place to wait. A brilliant new seating system is set to take off. The coach cabin will board window-seat passengers first, then middle seats, and aisle seats last. With the “Wilma” system, as United calls it, seats fill faster because people already seated don’t have to get up as much to let a row mate in.  Now there are more reasons than one to get an window seat.

The industry as a whole have made changes that fliers should be aware of before making travel plans. Budget cuts in Transportation Security Administration overtime will likely lead to longer security-screening lines. Make sure travel plans are set in stone because domestic ticket fees change  to $200 from $150, and international change fees went to $300 from $250. United Airlines, Delta, American, and US Airways collected a total of $2.3 billion in reservation cancellation and change fees last year, according to the Department of Transportation.

Will higher change and cancellation fees persuade fliers to book with other airlines?

What may be the reasons Airlines raise these fees?

By Understanding Customer Expectations, Virgin America Has Become America’s Highest Rated Airline in Only 5 Years

Five years ago Virgin America began operating flights in the U.S. As another endeavor of billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, Virgin America is privately owned. Similar to most of Branson’s Virgin companies, Virgin America is quite unorthodox. Their main cabin features “mood-lighting” and each seat back has a touch-screen device; all this for a low-cost carrier.

Virgin America "mood-lighting"
Virgin America “mood-lighting”

A report that compared America’s 14 largest carriers found that Virgin America served its’ customers best last year. The criteria was based on on-time arrivals, mishandled bags, consumer complaints and passengers who bought tickets but were turned away because flights were over booked. In the 23 years that Wichita State University in Kansas and the University of Nebraska at Omaha have tracked the performance of airlines this has been the second best year overall. The airline’s best year was 2011.

The U.S. airline industry is continually becoming more competitive. Since 2001, a wave of airline mergers has consolidated the industry. In 2008-2010 Delta Airlines merged with Northwest Airlines and kept their name. 2010-2012 brought the merger of United and Continental, which the two are still working out merger issues as evidenced by their last place rating in the report. Finally, just this year US Airways and American Airlines announced their merger, creating the largest carrier in the world.

Airlines have strategically dealt with the increased competition through many cost cutting maneuvers. Additional fees, such as a checked bag fee, are common among almost all U.S. carriers. Airlines are also cutting down the amount of routes they fly, continually overbooking flights, and fitting more people on airplanes by reducing seat space.

Despite these changes and the displeasure it brings, the airline industry is improving. Led by Virgin America, we are seeing airlines differentiating themselves by understanding their customer better. Similar to our learning activities in class, airlines have learned the importance of understanding customer expectations and managing them better. Virgin America’s mood-lighting appeals to it’s younger customer base, a result of being a low-cost carrier. Even more, the touch screens found in every seat back demonstrate Virgin’s ability to understand the needs of their customer. We live in a constantly connected world, albeit this connectivity does not permeate the many hours we spend in the air. This year Virgin will update their “Red” software that runs on the touch-screens, which will bring the ability to surf the internet while flying.

Virgin is just one example of airlines differentiating themselves by listening to customers. For example, JetBlue understands that customers are no longer willing to give up their flight for cash due to overbooking, a common practice among airlines. Last year, JetBlue involuntarily denied boarding to only .01 people per 1,000 passengers, the best rate in the report.

How else are airlines improving service quality despite handling increased competition? What changes have you noticed that demonstrate airlines are making adjustments to service based on customer feedback?

Huffington Post wrote a good article on the report. You can find it here.

Airfare A La Carte: Has the airline ticket become a loss leader?


As airlines continually try to boost their revenue in this down economy, Southwest Airlines has announced that they plan to raise certain fees for baggage (third bags and overweight ones) and “early-bird” check-in. This is significant because Southwest has always billed itself as the airline without hidden or additional fees – yet now even they see the benefits from charging for add-ons on top of airfare (their AirTran subsidiary is also raising its existing fees for baggage and other items).

More surprising, however, is that they also are planning a “no-show” fee for passengers who fail to cancel a ticket prior to flight time – a first-of-its-kind fee in the industry. This is from an airline where flight costs were fully reusable, with no change or cancellation fees. They say that this will only apply to the lowest fare classes and is only meant to encourage passengers to release space that can then be resold.

Southwest certainly is not the first to charge ancillary fees – most major airlines started doing so in 2008, when American started charging $15 for the first bag checked. Over time, fees jumped higher and broader, to offer things like lounge access, extra legroom, priority security lines and earlier boarding – perks and services previously only available to frequent fliers or via membership. And, lest we think these fees are ridiculous, there are airlines out there that have built their model on selling the extras. Spirit Airlines charged for bags, beverages, and food well before 2008, and currently offers 8 pages of extras on their website; Ryan Air (a European budget airline) not only charges for literally everything, they have removed seatback pockets and window shades and covered headrests and tray tables with advertisements. They have even “joked” that they would charge for the bathroom if they could find a way.

It seems likely that the cost of airfare may soon become just the minimum cost of entry, with airlines barely breaking even (or losing money) on the ticket price itself just to sell all of the upgrades and extras. The true cost of traveling by air may become more like buying a car: sure, you can just pay the base price for a seat, but don’t you want the extra legroom and the rustproofing? A number of articles even discuss airlines installing premium and/or extra-legroom seats in the front to increase revenue, while squeezing smaller seats and reducing seat pitch in regular economy in the back. However, while the airlines have enjoyed the added revenue (indeed, it has kept some of them in business), they have lost big in customer satisfaction. Proponents of the fees claim that it allows travelers more choice in customizing their experience; it also keeps the base ticket price affordable than the ‘true cost’ of a flight.

As a leisure or occasional traveler, how do all the additional fees affect your choices? Do you prefer the choices of the “a la carte” approach, or would you rather pay a higher all-inclusive fare? For the frequent fliers out there, how do you feel about regular fliers being able to purchase the perks that were once only available to the elite?


Southwest Raises Fees, Adds ‘No-Show’ Penalty:

Add-On Airline Fees: Good or Bad?

Spirit Airlines defends $100 carry-on bag fee,0,5442837.story

Like American, More Airlines Add Fees

Airlines shrink seats