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The Race to the Bottom


There is a bit of an identity crisis going on amongst what are known as "legacy" airlines - that is, those airlines that were enjoying a relatively happy life before one Michael O'Leary came along and upset the whole apple cart. For what happened next, I blame the marketeers. And over-sized online travel sites.

Marketing types always manage to ruin everything. Either, they overcook any trending topic on social media or they become possessed with a "me to" philosophy which in most cases, borders on the psychotic. Online has also ruined travel. What was hailed, about 20 years ago as being a panacea has turned out, as I predicted, an ongoing (and what will be, growing) nightmare for many air and holiday providers alike. Ironically, it is the humble travel agent who could still save the day. It all rather depends on how long the dog is prepared to be wagged by the tail. Thereby, however, lies another story.

The current case in point is British Airways (though currently a trusted and popular brand - but for how long?) British Airways (BA) was traditionally/ is, the cat's whiskers of airlines. The site of a BA tail fin in some distant foreign port gladdened the heart of many. BA symbolised quality, reliability, a modicum of comfort and (for those old enough to remember) a nice cup of tea and the BBC Home Service. Or to put in another way - Home.

Suddenly, out of the blue, came the low cost carrier. RyanAir went through the airline industry, all those years ago, like a volcanic ash cloud through a flying schedule and even now, legacy airlines struggle to cope with the fallout. Paradoxically, airlines turned to marketing types for help. Instead of thinking through what was happening in air travel, marketeers were expected to come up with ways of winning battles, rather than the airlines thinking about how to win the war. To add to their misery, airlines marginalised traditional travel agents and went for online solutions to try and increase passenger numbers; the holy grail being to achieve maximum distribution via any airlines' own website. Something else that didn't and never was, going to happen.

Most legacy airlines decided that the only way to compete with Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) was to match their (perceived) "steerage only" outlook. To put it another way, take out of the fare what one could and charge extra for it - resort to the LCC's same nickel-and-dime approach as well as matching them in terms of cramming people into cabins. BA have now reduced coach class legroom to less than that of RyanAir!

To my mind, there should be clear blue water between a legacy airline and an LCC. The legacy airline should, if it wishes to, have a stand-alone product, not intermingle the budget product, confusingly, with the mainline product.

Instead of following a "me-too" outlook, marketing should prove that it is up to the job and instead of opting for the lazy way out, should seek to establish the clear benefits of flying with a legacy airline and marketing should in this challenge, prove its mettle (not to mention, cost). Any idiot can give product away. Legacy airlines, in turn, need to rethink what they are about. Maybe it is time to look at where a legacy airline flies and how often ... if customers really want the LCC, then perhaps a legacy airline should think the impossible - "Fine, if that's what you want, Mr, Mrs and Ms. Customer, then that's what you get"

As the old adage goes: "Be careful, (customers), what you wish for"

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© 2018 Murray Harrold

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