More than a decade of grousing about product management

Bad Times Ahead: Travel

gray airliner
Photo by Ahmed Muntasir on

The Dude, a seasoned product manager, reflects on the impact of COVID-19 on air travel. He highlights the decline in travel demand, the flaws in the airline business model, and the shift from premium to budget travel. As airlines abandon social distancing measures, he expresses frustration and resolves to avoid flying for the near future.

The Dude came up through the ranks of product management when the norm was to spend a LOT of time on airplanes to visit customers and get that real time, face-2-face interaction. His worst year of travel was flirting with 200K miles in the air, and to be honest, it sucked. Yeah, that was the year where he had flown to Singapore three times by the end of March – ouch.

But in the main, especially for international trips there was some semblance of normalcy. While the domestic carriers had raced to the bottom, trying to strip amenities, and perks, the international carriers/trips still had food, and a bit better service.

Enter COVID-19

The Dude is glad he isn’t in a position where he needs to travel, because with the COVID ripping through the population, no effective treatments, and no effective vaccine on the near horizon, the carriers are taking a beating.

At first, the consensus was to cancel travel, and allow fliers to get refunds, even for non-refundable fares. There was always some travel by air, even during the initial shutdowns. But cabin seating was sparse, and carriers committed to as much social distancing as possible.

Of course, this is easier when there are very few willing passengers, and most of the flights were skeletal in the number of paying passengers.

But now, people are traveling. Until now, carriers had committed to keeping middle seats empty, to help with social distancing.

This was always a strategy that had a limited horizon. Truth is, that the airlines’ business model has some flaws.

  1. Flaw – Business travelers pay more, and that funds the bargain fares.
  2. Flaw – Stripping all amenities (checked bags, pillows, meals, beverages) and charging for every add on became the preferred path to more revenue and profit
  3. Flaw – The hub and spoke model with lots of spurs handled by tiny regional planes was the end game of air travel

The first chinks in the armor of this business model was the willingness of business travelers to pay more. There was a time when this was true, but that was largely before the internet, and the ability for corporate travel teams to monitor, groom, and encourage (e.g. force) fliers to book the lowest cost tickets. The days of automatic first class for domestic, and business class for international trips are a faint memory. When we travel, we often take the budget conscious route, or face the wrath of our management.

The second flaw, the ultimate end game of deregulation, and a population that prioritizes low cost over everything driving the escalation of extra fees for things that used to be free (well, the were never free, but the fare covered it.) This one really gets the Dude fired up. Mainly the cost to check bags, and the fact that to avoid that fee, people carry on way too much shit. But it also applies to drinks and meals, aisle or window seats, or the Economy Plus section where you get a couple more inches of leg room win exchange for $75. Or even the ability to select your seat. Total bullshit.

The Dude won’t go into the hub and spoke model of route allocation except to say that it has led to more legs, more cattle-car like experiences, and longer layovers in shithole airports.

What sparked this tirade

Sure Dude, but this has been true for a long time, why open the gripe bag now? Mainly because the airlines are pulling back on the middle row empty to drive some social distancing in the COVID era. This morning, West Jet announced that they were ending the practice and committed to filling planes up. This was followed by both United and American (for the time being, Delta, the Dude’s least favorite airline, seems to be committed to no middle seat occupancy).

Sure, the Dude knows that airlines need butts in seats, and that unless a lot of people start filling business class with full fare fliers, the pressure is going to be on filling planes to capacity. That is simple economics, and in many ways, it is the fault of airlines racing to the bottom, coupled with fliers who are unwilling to pay a real cost of flying.

And this is why the Dude will not be boarding an airplane for the foreseeable future.

Written by

A crusty veteran from the product management trenches. Plenty of salty language, references to cannabis, and a connoisseur of White Russian cocktails

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Written by pmdude