Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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How I'd Build An Airline for Business Travelers
January 22, 2015 -- The business-travel experts at Egencia allowed me to bloviate about life on the road during a conference last week and one of them asked a salient question: Could you imagine a perfect airline for business fliers?

Short answer: No. Long answer: I can do better than the customer-repellant carriers we now endure and a well-crafted enterprise could be nicely profitable, create jobs, enhance competition and offer most business fliers a much more palatable way to travel.

While what follows is a mostly academic, blue-sky endeavor, it is not totally divorced from day-to-day business-travel reality. The existing airlines this week are reporting fantastic fourth-quarter and full-year profits primarily fueled by plummeting oil prices, robust demand and a carefully orchestrated effort to constrain capacity. In other words, for the first time since before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the concept of new airlines is not a totally mindless, economically feckless fantasy.

So allow me to introduce you to Fair Air, the back-of-the-envelope carrier I created while flying home from the Egencia conference in Vancouver to New York in Seat 31C on Cathay Pacific Airways.

THE MISSION STATEMENT

Fair Air serves the legitimate domestic travel needs of business and leisure customers in a fun, fast, easy-to-understand way. It does not consider fliers annoying obstacles that must be dealt with en route to separating them from their hard-earned dollars. It treats customers and employees with respect and dignity. It charges a fair price for a fair product.

THE SEATING

Fair Air offers three types of in-flight seating on its fuel-efficient, mission-appropriate domestic jets (think Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s). In the Working Class cabin, seats are configured 2x2 with no middle seats and about 38 inches of legroom. (Think the current first class on legacy airlines.) It is appropriate for business travelers who hope to work in-flight and fliers interested in the most comfortable ride at the best value. In the Comfort Class cabin, seats are configured 3x3 with about 34 inches of legroom. (Think the current JetBlue Airways coach seating.) It is appropriate for any traveler interested in a fair ride at a fair price. In the Economy Class cabin, seats are configured 3x3 with about 31 inches of legroom. (Think today's current coach on the major airlines.) It is appropriate for budget fliers, families traveling together and anyone whose main interest is basic transportation at the lowest possible price.

THE FARES

All Fair Air prices are one-way, include a seat assignment and do not require a Saturday-stay or round trip purchase. The lowest fares in Comfort and Economy class are usually available 30 days in advance and prices increase in reasonable increments as it gets closer to departure. Working Class is sold with fewer discounts because there are fewer accommodations available and because some seats are earmarked for upgrades awarded to elite-status fliers. Prices are also seat-specific. In other words, middle seats will cost less than window or aisle seats and far-forward seats in Comfort Class will cost more than seats in Economy Class at the back of the plane. (This is hardly a revolutionary concept since most entertainment venues price this way.)

Most importantly, all Fair Air tickets are nonrefundable to guarantee that there are no over-sales or denied boarding. But travelers may do as they wish with their tickets after purchase because Fair Air will operate an online secondary exchange. In this marketplace, customers can resell their seats if they cannot fly and Fair Air will facilitate a name change on the tickets for a reasonable fee up to 24 hours before departure. (By the way, this isn't revolutionary, either. Sports teams now operate secondary markets for resale of tickets.)

THE BAGGAGE

Because checked baggage is expensive for airlines to handle and fliers hate being separated from their belongings, Fair Air will encourage travelers to carry-on appropriately sized luggage. Overhead bins will be as large as legally permitted and aeronautically possible. There will also be closets for Working Class and Comfort Class fliers to stow luggage. If customers must check luggage, each bag will be charged at a fair, flat rate.

FOOD AND BEVERAGES

During flights, Fair Air customers will be offered complimentary coffee, tea and water. But Fair Air will not have in-flight food service and there will be no traditional galleys or service carts. Space normally devoted to in-flight food service will be dedicated to seating and closet space. However, customers will be able to purchase fresh, tasty and fairly priced meals and beverages before boarding from special Fair Air Food kiosks located at the departure gate. Travelers will also be able pre-order and pay for food and beverages online and have it waiting for them to pick up as they board. All items will be packaged in ecologically responsible bags that double as trash containers so that it's easy for flight attendants to clean up during and after the flight. (This also isn't as revolutionary as it sounds. Many carriers once offered grab-and-go food bags that fliers picked up as they boarded the aircraft.)

IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT

Printed in-flight magazines are passe and add weight, so Fair Air won't have one. Traditional IFE (in-flight entertainment) systems are almost always outdated, saddling airlines with extra cost and extra weight and offering customers little except tiny screens, limited selection and big boxes under the chairs that restrict legroom and luggage storage. So Fair Air won't have that, either. What Fair Air will offer is fairly priced, high-speed WiFi so you can stream whatever you please to your own laptop, tablet or smartphone.

FREQUENCY PROGRAM

Fair Air's frequent flier program will be easy to understand and even easier to use. Passengers will earn points based on the dollars they spend with the airline. Points can be accrued for award tickets or can be used as a discount against ticket purchases. Elite fliers will receive upgrades to Working Class, priority boarding, free checked bags and other perks.

THE FINE PRINT

Fair Air will strive to have as little fine print and as few restrictions as possible, but even the casual reader will realize that what I've presented here is only the barest bones of a business. Airlines are incredibly complex operations and current carriers have made their products even more complex than they need to be. Fair Air will build a modern airline with as much do-it-yourself service as possible and it will use as many high-tech tools as available. Old-line carriers may be making hay this quarter, but the future will belong to airlines that seize the opportunity to offer better, less complex travel experiences at simpler, easier-to-understand prices.

This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.