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Blow Up the Airlines (Not Literally)

Blow Up the Airlines (Not Literally).

There may be no experience we voluntarily pay hundreds of dollars for which is more awful than flying. At least root canal solves a problem.

Even though we live in the world's richest, most powerful country, flying commercial in the U.S. has gone from exciting and special to an exercise more tedious than standing in line for toilet paper in the old USSR. No matter how wonderful your vacation is, its glow begins to evaporate 24 hours before you return home, as you prepare to go to war at the airport.

Flying is so horrible that we may be reaching a tipping point where enough consumers will pay more--but not too much more--to avoid the hassles of TSA security, frazzled gate agents, the only-in-the-airlines practice of overbooking, flight attendants hanging by their last nerve, and clueless travelers.

It's time to disrupt a disruptive business model

Disruption is everybody's favorite word in the biz world, and that's exactly what the airline industry needs. After years of disrupting our lives, their business model needs to be blown up.

Current alternatives are flawed. NetJets and similar firms which let you buy a fractional ownership have been around for years, but they remain very expensive. JetBlue has made an investment in JetSuite, a charter company which offers great last minute deals to fly an "empty leg" when a plane is repositioned, but it only serves a few destinations, and you have to hope for an opening. Surf Air offers memberships starting around $2,000 for unlimited flights, but it only flies inside California using single-engine turboprop aircraft.

There has to be a better way, and if the airlines were smart, they'd come up with it themselves. Here are three ideas begging for someone smarter than I am to bring them to market.

Three Ideas

First, create a hybrid private-commercial jet service using regional jets at special terminals with expedited TSA. There is a luxury terminal at LAX which lets people avoid long lines in the regular terminals and receive quick screenings, but it costs thousands of dollars. Couldn't the same idea be economized? Most airports have private fix-based operator (FBO) terminals for jet travel. What if Delta, for example, took over one of these FBOs for a new kind of commercial flying experience, providing quick and efficient security clearance and baggage checks, then shuttling passengers out to smaller jets? Pricing could be First Class plus...50 percent? If you're willing to pay $1,000 for a first class ticket, you might pay $1,500 to avoid the normal slog through the terminal.

Second, stop overbooking flights--just stop it--and create a Stubhub for flying. Do you ever buy a ticket to a concert or sporting event, only to be told you can't have your seat when you arrive? No, but you also don't get a refund if you're a no-show. How about creating a secondary market for ticket exchanges that can be managed securely by a trusted third party? For example, if I can't make my United flight this evening, I go online with an airline/FAA-approved reseller and see if I can sell my ticket. If the ticket doesn't sell, I take the hit. Safeguards would need to be created to limit abuse of the system, so that a group of individuals would not be able to buy blocks of tickets on popular routes with the sole purpose of reselling them. Perhaps you'd register for the service and only be allowed to resell a certain amount of tickets a year.

Third, it's been 16 years since the 9/11 attacks, and we are still using folding tables and bins to go through security. People still have to take off their shoes and belts and bag up their liquids and pull out their laptops...unless they want to pay TSA $85 to join Precheck. Even Precheck is starting to get crowded. Delta has invested in new automated lanes at the airport in Atlanta where several passengers can simultaneously load bags onto conveyor belts. This way, you're not held hostage stuck behind the guy who hasn't flown since 1983 and has no idea he can't bring a bottle of mouthwash the size of Kentucky in his carry on luggage. But the process is still made up of bins and conveyor belts and X-ray machines. It's 2017, people! The company that can come up with faster, cleaner, less clunky technology to get large numbers of people safely through security will not only become very rich, we will forever love you. Come on, Google! GE! Lockheed Martin! Do something useful! Ford Motor Company mastered the assembly line. People are buying fewer cars, so here's a new business opportunity.

One last thought

Ok, I'm adding a fourth idea. Be nice. Seriously. Virgin America, now part of Alaska Airlines, has been popular not because Richard Branson has been a genius about flight routes and pricing. People love Virgin because of the customer experience: friendly, hip flight crews, free wifi, food you can order from your seat, mood lighting! Southwest has been successful by not taking itself too seriously. The rest of the airlines are hit and miss, and most miss these days. The industry needs a head-to-toe makeover in customer service. Start being nice to us, and we'll be nice to you. It's not the other way around.

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