I titled my first blog here for this semester’s independent research on the commercial aviation industry “the stories behind the metal birds.” The past few months were a blink. Now, at the end of May, I am sitting in front of my laptop composing my last blog entry. But before I revisit the “stories” I have looked over the course of my work, I want to first share a story about how I personally came to be fascinated by the airline industry.
Afternoon view of the Hollywood Hills (picture taken by myself in January 2017)
As a continuation of my previous discussions about United Express Flight 3411, Part II includes a closer examination of the incident from perspectives of both United Airlines and today’s commercial aviation industry.
The end of Part I seems to suggest an easily-reached conclusion: since clauses regarding overbooking are specified in the contract of carriage, airlines could as easily deny a passenger to board if they see a greater economic interest in selling more tickets or accommodating other last-minute top-tier frequent flyers or VIPs. As long as airlines see a smaller marginal cost to denying a “regular passenger” onboard, they are free to do so within the legal frame. And in the case of United Express Flight 3411, the “VIPs” were four “deadhead crew” who needed to fly from their base in Chicago to Louisville to serve another flight. Again, what the crew on that flight did was perfectly legal: after 9/11, for security reasons, on U.S. commercial aircrafts, crew members are given the absolute authority and failure to comply with any of their instructions could result in the intervention of law enforcement. But this time, with the rapid spread of this incident’s footage on the Internet, the marginal cost of denying David Dao skyrocketed.
Lufthansa 747-8 at Frankfurt Airport (picture taken by myself in March 2017)
Part I: From Event Recap to the Common Practice of Overbooking
Monday, Apr.10, in the afternoon. I was waiting in line at Washington Dulles Airport, ready to board a United Express flight back to Philadelphia. The TV screen near the boarding gate was showing some CNN sports news, which I often pay the least attention to. Suddenly, I noticed a few people raising their heads almost unanimously from their private tiny screens, casting anxiously surprised looks onto that CNN channel. A video of a wounded passenger being dragged off a plane was shown on the screen, with that male passenger screaming. The caption was: United forcibly dragged a passenger off an plane in Chicago. The gate agent stood in front of me, not at all unnerved by the small commotion, and spoke into her microphone with professional smile: welcome to United Express flight 6138 with service to Philadelphia. We are now pre-boarding customers with disabilities, uniformed military personnel, family traveling with children under 2, and our Global Services members.
United aircrafts in Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) (picture taken by myself in November 2016)
Starting from the end of last month, when passengers travel from many Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East into the United States, they are no longer allowed to bring electronics larger than smartphone onboard as part of their carry-on luggage. Shortly after the U.S. announced this electronics restriction, the U.K. followed similarly. The three huge air carriers in the Middle East, Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad, are most affected by this newly enacted and executed security ban. These three carriers soon announced policy changes, such as allowing laptops to be checked-in at the gate, to minimize the negative effect this ban has on their customers. Yet despite their attempts, when you board Emirates’ signature A380 double-decker to fly from Dubai to New York next time, you will not be able to work on your laptop nor could you entertain yourself from an iPad. U.S. authorities have claimed that this ban is based on latest intelligence reports, which have indicated a possibility of terrorists inserting small bombs within electronic devices. This claim is understandable: after all, the lack of an effective and thorough security screening system creates room for many terrorist attacks. However, to what extent government authorities can exert their control in the name of safety is always debatable. Why is the electronics ban only on certain countries with a Muslim majority, with no U.S. carriers affected? How about the potential security threat in the checked baggage, which is often less scrutinized? In fact, arguments about how increasingly stricter airport security measures result in the violation of personal rights is never new.
Cathay Pacific A350 at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) (picture taken by myself)
At the end of my last blog, I mentioned how airlines have become so adept at differentiating their products that in a foreseeable future, a greater level of customer-driven customized flight experience can be expected. In fact, not only is this phenomenon a significant trend in the airplane seat development, it also represents a unique feature of the industry’s revenue composition. When I was building an eco-hotel business model in my Business & Society class back in the fall, I noticed that approximately 10% of hotel revenue comes from sources other than regular room rates. This seems quite reasonable: after all, meals, laundry, mini-bar expenses are often an important part of travelers’ hotel bills. However, I was surprised to find out that according to a consulting firm IdeaWorks, the ancillary revenue of traditional U.S. air carriers (non-inclusive of those low-cost competitors like Southwest) had 11.9% share of their total revenue in 2015, meaning that in average, when a major U.S. airline sells a $1,000 ticket, it would later get $119 more revenue from somewhere else. While these numbers seem to illustrate the power of the “customization” I have previously mentioned, they indicate something far more profound. A deeper look into IdeaWorks’ report suggests that nearly 55% of U.S. major airline ancillary revenue came from “sale of FFP (frequent flyer program miles).” In fact, aside from the seemingly excessive baggage and seat selection charges, airlines increasingly found frequent flier programs to be just as lucrative. Arguably, the proliferation of loyalty programs in airlines has become a definitive feature of the industry, shaping the modern-day air travel landscape in so many ways.
In the past week, I have been focusing on the evolution of airplane seats. Through this blog post, I will present a snapshot of this multifaceted and complicated piece of history. While I realize that I am far away from being an expert on many nuances and considerations that went into the seat design process, I hope that I can, at least, portray a general trend of development and provide some insights into how today’s air travel can be seen as a cumulative result of the past.
Hello everyone. It is definitely an exciting time for me to start doing my second semester research on the past events and current developments of commercial aviation. I am a huge fan of commercial aviation since I was little, and I regularly read and write travel blogs and aviation forums to get to know the latest trends or development in this field and to share my thoughts.
Air Canada Boeing 777-300ER with service from Shanghai to Toronto (picture taken by myself)
It happened! I rode in a helicopter for the second time in my entire life with my friend Claudia at the American Helicopter Museum this past weekend! I flew in an R-44 Robinson helicopter piloted by an older man with over 1000 hours of flight time logged in every war since Vietnam. Continue reading →
I am nearing the end of my research on the evolution of the helicopter as the school year concludes in a few weeks. However, I still have a bustling week of work ahead of me as well as an invaluable week of research last week. Continue reading →