David Cogswell | March 03, 2015 4:00 PM ET
Rethinking The Experience of Flying
As I flew out of Cairo to New York JFK, we headed north over Turkey – that was where we had some of the craziest turbulence I have ever experienced. The poor flight attendants were trying to deliver a meal and the airplane was shaking violently for what felt like a long time. They were struggling to keep their balance as they kept grimly moving down the aisle one row at a time, sliding those trays out and trying to hand them to people without sending them flying.
We continued north over Europe, then Scandinavia, then west over Iceland and the southern tip of Greenland. There was an enthusiastic, fresh group of Egyptian teenagers on their way to a model UN conference in the U.S. and they were looking out the window at Greenland to see snow, some of them for the first time.
One of the flight crew told them to shut the window. It was the part of the flight when the cabin was kept dark to help people sleep. But it got me thinking.
The flight map at the front of the cabin was showing our route, and if you stopped thinking of it just as a picture and realized for a minute that this is really where you are traveling across the face of the earth, and that that really is Greenland down there, even though you were in Cairo a few hours ago – Wow! That could just about blow your mind.
Flying! My God! Isn’t that one of the greatest adventures humankind has ever experienced? It was in 1903, only a little more than a century ago that the Wright Brothers managed to make some wobbly contraption leave the ground and fly through the air. The dream of time immemorial has come true, the flight of human beings up into the sky, reaching into the skies, flying higher than the mountains.
Now we do it easily. We do it routinely, ho hum. Day after day we do it. We get in lines, go through all the motions and function like parts of a big machine. We’re like ants in an anthill. And when we are on board, we don’t even look out of the window.
If you told someone in 1903 that you could build a machine that would climb so high it would look down on Mount Everest like a matchbox on the floor and it could whiz you from New York to Africa in less than a day – and you told him you don’t even bother to look out the window – wouldn’t he think you were nuts?
I’m wondering if the airlines might not want to rethink some of these things, or at least if some airlines might offer an alternative to flying as it is now conceived as a sort of sleep-in restaurant experience.
The idea of getting into an aluminum tube in one part of the world and getting out in another, as if you had been teleported, and never getting a sense of the earth over which you traveled – that’s not the only way to conceive of air travel.
Now that the words “experiential travel” are about fifth and sixth word out of every travel industry person’s mouth, maybe it’s time to re-examine the flying experience in that context.
I can’t help but think the airlines are tremendously underplaying the singular adventure of air travel.
I understand that there are economic imperatives in running a profitable airline business, and those have led us to this point. And for the most part, what the airline industry has achieved as an industry is an almost unfathomable accomplishment.
They’ve got it down so that they are able to move masses of people all over the earth. On long-haul flights I greatly appreciate the routine of getting on board, getting set up to rest or to pass the time deeply absorbed in entertainment, and maybe getting some sleep. The practices that the airlines have evolved in making such long-distance travel not just possible, but comfortable, are great achievements.
But still, I think there is more to be made of the adventure, of the reality of the fact that you are engaged in one of the great adventures of human history.
The video maps at the front of the cabin or in the individual entertainment modules, which show the route and where you are and list various stats about altitude, speed, time etc. — that is a step in the right direction. There is great potential for development along those lines, given the state of the art of video games today.
That’s one avenue through which airlines could exploit the adventure of travel. And it wouldn’t have to disrupt the routines by which people are able to eat, sleep and function relatively normally as they speed from continent to continent.
Airlines might try taking the on-board lounge a step further by providing sightseeing opportunities for those who want to look out of the plane and get a better sense of the physical reality of flight.
It might make it so you don’t have to choose between an aisle seat, where you are able to get up any time you want to go to the restroom, and a window seat where you can look out of the plane.
Of course what is available to the elite traveler is always a long way from the mass market. The private jet offerings of high-end tour operators, such as Abercrombie & Kent, Travcoa, Intrav and TCS Expeditions, have provided an alternative to the idea of flying as a sort of extended restaurant experience.
Typical of this was a Boeing 737 with the interior reconfigured to hold 44 first class seats instead of cramming 140 seats in rows like in a theater or a classroom.
Now Abercrombie & Kent has taken it one step further, to the point at which private jet travel must be today, incorporating the lie-flat seats. Last summer A&K introduced private jet travel using a Boeing 757 with its interior redesigned to house 50 lie-flat first class seats instead of the normal 170.
But these are tour operators. Unlike the airlines, they are not in the business of moving massive numbers of people at the least possible cost for the greatest possible profit margin. They are in the business of providing experience.
Airlines have rarely been really customer experience-oriented; they are more logistically oriented, like massive military organizations. And they must be to some degree to accomplish what they do. But it still might be worthwhile for them to consider the experiential aspects of the flight experience.
Some airlines, such as Virgin and JetBlue, have shown that they are aware of the customer experience component of their product, and that flying can be fun. The international market is of course much more competitive. There you have multitudes of airlines competing and as a group they produce some amazing components.
Domestically it’s a little more like the Big Three plus, and they don’t distinguish themselves much from each other, at least not in terms of imaginative ways to delight customers.
If they did, however, it might give them something to compete on besides price.
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