Column: As JetBlue joins race to air-travel bottom, what’s needed is a Netflix of the skies
A modest proposal for air travelers: Netflix.
No, I’m not suggesting you watch that or some other pay-TV service to distract from the misery of being crammed into a too-small airline seat with leg room sufficient only for Tattoo from “Fantasy Island.”
What I’m suggesting is that people stop pushing airlines to offer worse and worse service in the name of lower fares, which is a racket anyhow since carriers will still fleece you with extra fees for everything from checked bags to assigned seating.
Instead, we should give air travel the same consideration we give TV viewing — that is, an acknowledgement that you get what you pay for, and it’s worth paying a little extra for the experience we desire.
This thought occurred to me Monday after JetBlue became the latest carrier to announce it was introducing a no-frills “basic economy” fare to compete with bargain-basement airlines such as Spirit and Frontier.
JetBlue joins Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines in seeking to make air travel even more miserable. And what’s really beautiful here is JetBlue is fully aware that this no-frills thing treats passengers with contempt.
“At JetBlue, we never liked the ‘no frills’ approach,” the airline’s president, Joanna Geraghty, said in a note to employees posted on the company’s blog.
“But with these competitors now offering basic economy on many routes we fly, customer behavior suggests our success is at risk if we do not disrupt this market by lowering fares without sacrificing the experience,” she said.
That last part about not sacrificing the experience is, of course, wishful thinking. If you could lower prices by reducing service quality without making air travel even crappier, every airline would have done it years ago.
I spoke with several experts in consumer behavior and psychology about what seems at first glance to be irrational behavior on our part.
Consumers believe saving maybe about $30 on an airline seat in return for a dreadful experience is somehow shrewd thinking, yet we’ll happily shell out $132 a year for a standard Netflix subscription or $144 annually for a commercial-free Hulu plan.
Mita Sujan, a marketing professor at Tulane University, said if this is irrational behavior, she’s guilty of it herself. She routinely seeks the lowest possible fare when flying, even if that means a lesson in contortion.
“It’s not an experience,” Sujan explained. “It’s just a process of getting to a destination. We’re not interested in maximizing it.”
Watching TV, on the other hand, is an experience, one that we’re eager to maximize.
“We treat it as a reward for all that we do during the day,” Sujan said.
Eva Buechel, an assistant professor of marketing at USC, noted that a key difference between consumers’ approaches to air travel and TV viewing is one of longevity.
The limited duration of a basic-economy flight makes the discomfort and inconvenience tolerable, she said, whereas most of us perceive TV viewing as a lifelong pursuit.
“Whenever I fly, I always feel like it will be a miserable few hours but I’ll just suck it up,” Buechel said.
The reason no-frills fares are cheaper is because passengers get less bang for their buck. And if you’re truly going to get a deal, you’ll have to dodge all the sneaky add-on charges airlines want to hit you with, which means you’ll have the least-comfortable, least-convenient, least-pleasant flight imaginable.
“Customers who opt for this fare will agree to some limits, which might include things like boarding order, seating and change/cancellation flexibility, but we will not make them feel like second-class citizens,” JetBlue’s Geraghty said.
Again, wishful thinking.
Moreover, she said the airline is determined to “keep our mission of humanity front and center.” Mission of humanity? What is this, the March of Dimes?
The sole mission of basic-economy fares is to give you a sense that you’re somehow beating the system, which you’re not.
You’re not arriving at your destination any sooner than anyone else. You’re just guaranteeing that you’ll like the trip less, all for the sake of having $10 or $20 more in your pocket than the guy sitting next to you.
“We’ve all heard the horror stories from customers about ultra-low-cost travel,” Geraghty acknowledged. “JetBlue can do better for them. If we add a fare that saves customers money but still delivers the JetBlue experience, I can’t imagine why a traveler shopping on price would ever choose another airline over us.”
Good luck with that.
This trade-off of nasty service for a modest savings is exactly like a TV station interrupting a program every few minutes for commercials but insisting that you’ve come out ahead because you’re watching for free.
If that were a bargain consumers truly appreciated, premium channels such as HBO and Showtime, not to mention the entire cable-TV industry, never would have found their footing.
The reason people willingly pay for an improved TV experience is because the alternative gradually became that bad. I’d say the same now applies to air travel.
What’s needed is some visionary entrepreneur who’s willing to adapt a proven business model — pay TV — to the airline industry.
Give me HBO Air or Starz Airways. Charge a reasonable flat rate for reasonably high-quality service, with no hidden tricks or traps, and I’ll keep coming back for more.
Do I watch everything HBO puts on? Hardly. But what I do watch is so much better, and provides such a better viewing experience, that I can absolutely say it’s worth $15 a month. I’ll say the same about commercial-free SiriusXM satellite radio, for which I pay $11 monthly.
So, Ms. Geraghty, you say you never liked the no-frills approach? You’re not alone.
Instead of becoming just another Spirit Airlines, offering passengers just another soul-crushing travel experience, take a step in the other direction.
Be the Netflix of carriers.