Speculator: blue sky thinking

Jul 01, 2008
<p><em>Speculator </em>ponders the future profitability of the airline industry</p>

Modern flying is such a disagreeable experience and airlines are such unprofitable businesses, I wonder why anyone bothers to be either a provider or a consumer of air transport. The International Air Transport Association estimated at the beginning of the year that the whole global industry would make just $5 bn in profit in 2008, and that was before oil prices vindicated the gloomy prophesies of cynical Jeremiahs like me.

It has been suggested that if you want a close simulation of being booked and held by the NYPD, the best way – short of poking a cop in the nose – is to fly out of a New York airport, or indeed almost any major airport.

Peremptory officials demanding ID; the paranoid humiliation of multiple lines; removing jackets, shoes and belts; giving up phones, keys and computers. Above all, there’s the knowledge that once you enter that airport perimeter, you have, in effect, forfeited all your normal citizen’s rights. Like a prisoner, you have every right to complain or to argue back. But if you do, like prison warders ‘dressed in a little brief authority’, airline and airport personnel can remove you from your flight or even lock you up. And the more you argue with the short-tempered, harassed airline staff, the worse it gets for you.

Because of the inane restrictions at security, passengers can’t even bring their own drinks on planes but have to pay inflated prices inside the zone. There is nothing more annoying, however, than seeing a company neglect revenue. On my last grueling trip hopping from hub to hub, I saw some potential profit centers being ignored by the airlines.

What sense is there in burning up investors’ cash ferrying people between facilities to be incarcerated for hours at a time, unless the airlines can derive revenue from the ‘airport experience’? There are lots of terminally bored, restless people lingering on uncomfortable seats, deafened by announcements from people who have clearly served their apprenticeships in incomprehensibility on the New York subway system. So why can’t the airlines run the franchises there themselves and overcharge their own captive customers for nasty burgers and frankfurters?

Indeed – even better – why not open mini-casinos in the hubs? As certain long-established Italian family firms will testify, that is a much surer way of making money than flying airplanes.

Maybe massage parlors would relieve the tedium and tension of the air travel experience. They would also generate revenue while gainfully employing the cabin crews no longer needed to serve meals and drinks on board.

Finally, while marooned for three hours in Fort Lauderdale, I saw a rare sight: long lines for the men’s room. So if airlines charge for food and water, why not charge for using the restrooms? And not just in the airports. Why not put meters on the doors of the aircraft lavatories? It would shorten the waiting times and be entirely in keeping with the essential process of petty humiliation needed to condition the modern airline passenger – and it would make s***loads of money.

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