The Tom Dougherty Blog


Posts categorized “Airlines”

Delta Airlines lives up to its brand promise

 Subscribe in a reader

Apparently, Delta Airlines is taking market share form its competitors. It seems that Delta is growing in almost every market, and American/US Airways and United are shrinking to an almost perfect correlation to the growth being captured by Delta. Delta is even gaining against low-cost carriers like JetBlue.

Now I am sure you expect a brand man like me to credit Delta’s growth to its brand and you would be right. “Keep Climbing” is the best brand theme line in the entire airline industry because it is one of the few that is about the flyer and not the company. It answers quite nicely who we believe we are when we chose Delta. We are someone getting ahead and succeeding in all things.

Delta AirlinesBut, I do not believe, as terrific as the Delta brand promise is, that the slogan is the sole reason the airline is winning the battle for a finite pool of customers. Trust me on this. Delta has culturally decided that it needed to win more than your airfare. It wanted to transform the experience as best as it could. The theme line came about because the culture permitted it. Looking at your business from the outside in changes everything and, in this case, it also changed the theme.

I am a Global Services flyer with United. It is their highest status. It is so secretive that United doesn’t release the criteria needed to gain that status. Supposedly, I am treated the best by United. Sometimes, that’s true. Most times, however, I am just another weary face boarding a beat up and worn out aircraft.

My status does permit me to board first, behind folks who need extra time to board because of infirmity and military service people in uniform. This provides me with the wondrous advantage of sitting on the hard, uncomfortable seats longer than the last to board and a birds-eye view of all the other harried and angry passengers.

I fly Delta occasionally and I have to say it treats me better with no status than United usually does with its highest level of affinity. Delta still brings little bags of pretzels or treats to my seat with my choice of beverage. It staff is always professionally dressed and seem to smile more.

I am not noticing this because Delta has told me to “Keep Climbing,” but I think it is being delivered as a real promise more often than not to the traveler. The flight crew has embraced it as well. Delays and plane troubles are part of the experience for everyone today, but you would be surprised how much easier it is to take when the messenger is professional and understanding.

So keep climbing Delta. If I were given equal status on your airline as I have with United, I would never fly United again.

More proof of a broken airline industry

 Subscribe in a reader

Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse for airline passengers, here comes news that Frontier Airlines will charge you a fee for carry-on bags.


Now, to be fair, Frontier is adding these fees by promising to reduce base fares by 12%, as the airline is aiming to become a fee-dependent airline like Spirit and Allegiant.

But this is a slippery slope that foretells the big three airlines (American, Delta, United) doing the same – without reducing fares.

carry-on baggage feesThis is because the airline model is broken for passengers, and the airlines themselves give not one whit about it. Let me take a step back. The airlines don’t care as long as things go well in the short term, which is why you see airlines adding fees and, more importantly, consolidating to help the bottom line.

The reason for consolidation is that, when two big airlines merge, they can reduce redundancy with a merged company, cutting costs on both sides of the merger. The reason for the additional fees is simply to add revenue at the expense of passengers who are held hostage by, basically, monopolies and their loyalty programs.

So, the bottom line looks good, the CEO leaves and gets a giant parachute for his efforts. Then, when the advantages of the merger run out, it becomes someone else’s problem and that leads to more fees.

The fees for carry-on baggage will come from the big airlines because they have put themselves in this spot. When they added fees for checked luggage, many travelers (especially business travelers like myself) simply carried on their luggage.

Have you boarded a flight from the big three lately? It’s a chaotic mess with most passengers trying to find space in the overhead to put their carry-on bags. They squeeze luggage in as tightly as they can, trying to jam a bag in that just won’t fit. It’s a race to the gate, because the earlier you get on the plane, the more likely you’ll be able to find enough space.

So here come the fees for that. Although this sounds like a rant, I don’t necessarily mean it to be. Instead, it’s a plea to the airlines to think about the future of the airline industry, their own airlines and what each one can do to be actually become preferred. (We can help.)

But I’m not crossing my fingers.

Will any airline step up to the plate?

 Subscribe in a reader

It sure does not look like any airline really gives a hoot about the customers who fly them regularly. I just blogged a week or so back about how, as a Star Alliance member, my choices and benefits were divided by thirds and partially removed because of the American Airlines merger with US Air. I have no more access to the old US Air clubs and many cities that were Star Alliance hubs have just vanished for me.

Well, American Airlines today just made the new merged airline worse for those flyers trapped with American (people who flew from US Airways hubs). Take a look at this:

No more blackout days for redeeming miles on US Airways, matching the policy at American.

  1. For U.S. travel on or after June 1, American members can redeem miles for an unrestricted “AAnytime” award at 20,000 miles, 30,000 miles or 50,000 each way instead of the current 25,000-mile flat rate. The less-flexible “MileSAAver”awards will continue to start at 12,500 miles.
  2. Mile requirements will change on many international trips.
  3. There will be no more free checked bags for American Airlines passengers traveling on miles they earned or who paid full price for an economy seat.
  4. Some elite-level frequent fliers on both airlines will get to check one less free bag than before.
  5. The charge for a second checked bag on trips to South America is being dropped.

Does it not seem a bit arrogant to pull benefits and obligations from the same flyers that routinely pay your bills? Who can afford this total disregard of customers? I’ll tell you who…MONOPOLIES. And the airlines are just that. They don’t care because, as flyers, we have no choice.

American AirlinesFly out of Newark, Dulles, O’Hare (they have two choices), Houston San Fran, LA, or Denver and you are OWNED by United. Fly out of Atlanta or Minneapolis and Delta owns you. Fly out of Charlotte, Philadelphia, or Dallas and American owns you. They can make any decision they want and the market is still indentured.

So step up. Will one of the airlines understand that what looks like a self inflicted wound by expanding frequent flyer benefits would have the same positive impact that CVS got from banning cigarette sales? Sure it looks as though it hurts profits, but in fact it says that customers matter. That being a provider of hospitality is really what you are. Transportation is simply how you dimensionalize it.

So United and Delta, will either of you step up to the plate and declare on the side of your customers and, more importantly, your prospects? Give equal status based upon the most recent American Airlines status and throw in a few more perks that says you are starting a war for our branded hearts? Would I drive 50 miles to a different airport to take advantage of it? You bet. Flights are so bad right now that half of my connecting flights are delayed or cancelled anyhow. I’m up for it. I would love to know that someone in the industry gets it.

Lufthansa strike is just another nail in the coffin for the airline industry

 Subscribe in a reader

Today, Lufthansa cancelled 3,800 flights because of a wage dispute with pilots. Usually, I rail against US domestic carriers and their deflated position among passengers. No one seems happy with their preferred carrier, and I use the term preferred with trepidation. After all, it seems to me that no one really likes their airline. They just seem to hate them less than others.

lufthansa strikeThe international carriers like Lufthansa (a domestic carrier in Europe) have taken their hits as well and the strike today just reinforces the airline industry’s lack of understanding. They just don’t seem to realize they are part of the hospitality business as much as they are part of the transportation segment.

The standoff is because of an operational business decision. The Lufthansa strike is about what constitutes fair pay and benefits for pilots. The traveler is not in the mix. We are just collateral damage. Flying around Europe — in and out of the Lufthansa hub in Frankfort – it does not take a genius to see how vital Lufthansa is for business.

However, the ramifications are not about the business of Lufthansa, it is about the business of the Lufthansa brand. And it has very important impact on the airline alliance brands. For those that rely on the airlines for business connections, this is not just an inconvenience. It is a loss of revenue and business success. If you need to get somewhere and can’t, well, it means you can’t conduct business. The 3,800 flights are not a small bleep. On the contrary, they are a major setback.

The Star Alliance will take a major hit tomorrow when US Airways disappears and American Airlines emerges from the merger. This is a huge realignment of airline alliances and makes international flights by Star Alliance members difficult in transatlantic flights. How many travelers will align with a different carrier with both Lufthansa and US Air suddenly unavailable?

Considering that the airlines have been demoted to being noticed only at the time of failure, I can tell you that my golden handcuffs to the Star Alliance are beginning to seem more like anchors.

United Airlines getting higher fees with the help of TSA

 Subscribe in a reader

United Airlines is, according to reports, getting help from the US government in collecting more fees from passengers. Oh, I know the article did not read that way exactly, but it is what the article says.

According to those reports, United has asked the TSA to help it screen oversized bags during the security check and send those non-compliant travelers back to the check-in counter to pay and check the bags. This is not a new rule. It is just another example of how the airlines continue to view their customers as both an advisory and a deep well of uncollected fees.

blogSpanThis comes right when US Airways is exiting from the Star Alliance, knocking a huge slice out of the United brand’s appeal to frequent travelers like myself. In years past, if United could not get me to many of the destinations I needed, I could fly US Airways and still collect my frequent flyer miles on United. No more. The only one collecting anything anymore is United.

Previously, if your bag was too large for the carry-on compartments, United would check the bag at the gate for no fee. Now, when TSA sends you back to the counter, United will charge you an additional fee to check the bag. Oh, don’t worry. United says this is not because it wants to squeeze more cash out of the already tightly squeezed sardines that fill its aging fleet of aircraft. It says it’s just decided to enforce a long-standing regulation.

Really? “United collects $638 million in checked-bag fees a year but wants to increase that figure. In a January earnings call, the airline’s chief revenue officer, Jim Compton, said United hopes to collect an extra $700 million over the next four years from extras such as baggage fees and the sale of extra legroom,” said the report from the Associated Press.

Here is the basic problem with airlines, and in fact, most publically traded companies. They confuse their constituency with the investor. You know the investor? He is the gambler that places uninformed wagers on companies like Best Buy.

The most powerful brands reflect the customer they wish to influence. In United’s case, that is the gambler… sorry, I mean investor. United obviously knows nothing about the customer who flies on its airline.

Just this week, in planning a quick business trip, my travel agent suggested I start  accumulating miles on a different airline alliance so that I have status on more than one grouping. Doesn’t United understand the adversarial relationship it has fostered between its frequent flyers and the brand? We don’t fly United because we love United. We fly United because we have little choice.

Here is a new, in-flight intro movie I suggest for United: “Hi, I’m Jeff Smisek, CEO of United. Thank you for continuing to have to fly our airline. I want to thank you on behalf of the gambling community we continue to serve for paying all of our high fees and for paying for the Wi-Fi we have been promising for years on the three routes on which we have actually installed it. You will be pleased to know that because of your thick wallets, United has been profitable.”

The truth about the American/US Air merger

 Subscribe in a reader

“This is an important day for our customers, our people and our financial stakeholders. This agreement allows us to take the final steps in creating the new American Airlines. With a renewed spirit, we are about to create the world’s leading airline that will offer, along with our oneworld partners, a comprehensive global network and service by the best people in the business. There is much more work ahead of us but we’re energized by the challenge and look forward to competing vigorously in the ever-changing global marketplace.” – American Airlines CEO Tom Horton, and incoming chairman of the combined company of American Airlines and US Airways.

In the coming months, you’ll be hearing the spin about how the American Airlines/US Airways merger will be better for customers because the new airline will, well, just be better.


aa-us-airways-merger-tails-021413The merger is flat-out bad for travelers. The loss of competition means prices will go up. There will be fewer options. And I don’t believe for a second that the newly merged airline will be improved.

Although, now that I think about it, this is the merger of the two worst major airlines in the world. So I guess there’s no place to go but up, right?

Snuck into the agreement with the US Justice Department was this little nugget: The airline must keep its hubs at Charlotte NC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Phoenix and JFK Airport in New York City for three years.

Wow. Way to put the hammer down, Justice League! In three years, the new airline will basically be able to do whatever it wants. And that will be to screw you over as much as it can.

I know the Justice Department got into a pickle here, having already approved mergers for United/Continental and Delta/Northwest. This was pure politics even after the Department filed a legal challenge to the proposed merger months ago.

So, while it was inevitable that a deal would be done, don’t believe it for a second when you start hearing how this merger is better for customers.

It’s pure nonsense.

Glad to hear Gershwin again, but is United really friendly?

 Subscribe in a reader

United launched a new series of terrific ads this weekend, bringing back the old theme of “Fly the Friendly Skies.”

On the one hand, I welcome the return to the familiar “Rhapsody in Blue” because it is a moving equity marker for United’s brand. On the other hand, the promise seems disingenuous at best for any passenger who flies more than a couple of times a year.

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.20.55 AMTo be fair, I am Global Services customer with United and I am afforded a higher degree of customer service than most. During a recent flight from New Mexico, I was met on the jet bridge in Washington DC by a United representative who personally informed me that my next flight was going to be late and that I was welcome to use the United Club at my leisure.

Though I have a club membership, it was a nice sentiment all the same. Is United friendly for me? Absolutely, but I also fly a couple hundred thousand miles a year. My status makes United friendly.

As a counter point, a colleague of mine was traveling with me on the same flight. His status is 1K, which is a step below Global Services. A representative did not meet him. In fact, I was the only person on the entire 200+ person airplane that was met by a representative. Perhaps friendly is only delivered to .5% of those who fly with United.

United is better than most and worse than a few. I fly United because I am trapped in my loyalty program. My status forces it be friendlier to me. But to the common traveler who has little to no status with United, the features and benefits United touts will not be felt by them. Rather, they will be stuck in economy and see no difference in “friendliness” than they would if they were on Delta, American or anyone else.

I want United to be the friendly skies. I want to close my eyes on a flight to Chicago and hear Gershwin in my head. But that is not reality – for United or any other carrier. Even Global Services flying is not all that friendly – it must be downright nasty for someone who hardly ever flies.



Which airlines have the most Wi-Fi enabled flights?

 Subscribe in a reader

There is a lot of chatter in the media this week about in-flight Wi-Fi. Delta and American seem to lead the way with Virgin America and Southwest having almost 100% coverage.

This is an example of why belief systems affect brand values. No doubt there are regulatory issues surrounding the introduction of Wi-Fi on flights. No doubt there are some technical issues too.

But I don’t care.

wifi_usage_600x264I need Wi-Fi when I travel and I BELIEVE all flights should already have it. I base this uneducated belief on the ease of which I have made my home and working places Wi-Fi(ed), to coin a term. I plugged in a wireless router and it simply worked. At home, my Wi-Fi signal is so strong I can use it on my neighbor’s deck.

So, airlines, I am not pleased to find Wi-Fi isn’t on your flight. I consider it a table stake. When you don’t have it, I just figure you don’t care or understand anything about me.

Who knows, maybe you might even figure out that I need an AC plug too. Naaah. That would be asking too much.

Spirit Airlines’s brand may be weak, but at least it has one

 Subscribe in a reader

Consumer Reports just released its annual airline rankings and Spirit Airlines ranked dead last on the list. Ben Baldanza, Spirit’s CEO, was perfectly fine with that, saying legroom, seat size and other airline amenities are not what Spirit is all about. Rather, lowest cost and shareholder value is how Spirit should be measured.

Perhaps he is actually on to something.

Spirit is all about no-nonsense cheap flights. It is very proud and self- effacing about this. Its seats are smaller and it has no beverage service, but its flights are full. Why?  Because Spirit is aiming for a specific audience – the bargain shopper.

ar130383785430026That does not mean Spirit is the most meaningful brand out there. But considering the current state of airline travel, Spirit isn’t any worse than the others. Spirit is at least being upfront about it.

We say all the time that brands have to resonate with people emotionally. For a great many of us, there is significant emotion tied up in saving money. For some, that trumps everything else. Those airline passengers feel they are the smart ones by going cheap. To them, it is not really worth a couple hundred dollars for more leg room and a beverage.

The power of brands is that, by their very nature, they should not be for everyone. This is the fundamental problem for airlines. No one knows whom United, Delta, or American are for. They just seem to be for everyone, which means they are emotionally for no one.

Spirit Airlines is not a brand for everyone, but I can’t deny the power of its brand for those it is trying to reach.

US Airways and American Airlines merger: New logo. Same poor service.

 Subscribe in a reader

Chances are, those who fly either US Airways or American Airlines do so because of a loyalty program. Not because of superior service.

US Airways and American fail to do an adequate job of getting passengers from point A to point B.
The most common metric to measure airline success is the on-time performance rate. Airlines have become so satisfied with mediocrity that they boast when their on-time percentage is above 85 percent.

What kind of success is that? What if your car only started 85 percent of the time? Or if your soda was carbonated only 85 percent of the time? Or if your cable only worked 85 percent of the time?

Chances are, you would switch cars, sodas and cable providers.

Powerful brands cause people to pay more and inconvenience themselves to use them, which is not true with airlines. Passengers choose airlines based on price, schedule and loyalty programs.
Consolidation of airlines is not done to provide a better service. It’s done to pick up additional airports and aircraft. Unfortunately, as the number of airlines dwindles prices jump, service sags and brand becomes irrelevant.

With this merger there will be just four major domestic carriers: United, Southwest, Delta, and the “new” American.

The problems that plagued American to the point of bankruptcy and the sloppy service from US Airways will remain. Who knows, conditions may worsen.

Is there room for an airline to develop a brand that attracts travelers beyond price, schedule and service?

Absolutely. With the consolidation of two inferior carriers, the opportunity is greater than ever.