American Airlines announced this week that squirrels will be running through the cabin.
Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what they said, but it might as well be. If not squirrels then cute kittens, shiny sparkly baubles, or babies sitting in tulips. My point is that we all have something that distracts us from the matter at hand, and the airline industry is hoping that it’s cookies.
In case you missed it, American Airlines announced that Biscoff cookies and pretzels will be offered to passengers flying between New York and San Francisco or Los Angeles, starting this month. By April, they’ll be offered on all domestic flights, along with a greater selection of free entertainment. Then, in May, all heck breaks loose as full meal service returns for coach passengers flying between Dallas and Hawaii. Hold on a minute…I need to book that flight! (This is where I need a good sarcasm font.)
This follows United’s announcement last year that they’re bringing back the Stroopwafel (as well as Asian and Cajun snack mixes) and upgrading their coffee on select flights. Amenities that had been missing for nearly a decade on many flights. The airlines are positioning this as “giving back” some of the perks that disappeared after 9/11, and the ensuing recession and bankruptcies. Perks they say customers made very clear they wanted back.
The changes at American Airlines don’t stop there. Because the common folk will be receiving free cookies again, there’s an upgrade in First Class, too. The airline has collaborated with several luxury brands for an amenity kit that features high-end products from 3LAB Skincare, Clark’s Botanicals, C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries, and Cole Haan. (I smell a co-branding opportunity!) The new kits should start arriving in March, replacing the popular “Legacy” kits which featured logos from the carriers that merged to form the current American Airlines.
Admittedly, the airlines had a tough time for many years and it was a struggle to survive. That was then. This is now: Record profits, 80+% load factor, lower fuel costs, more efficient planes (meaning lower operating costs), less domestic competition. And we get…cookies.
I will bet you a roundtrip ticket to AA’s headquarters that, if you ask any flier to prioritize their wish list, snacks are way down the list. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my struggle to lose that stinking “holiday weight,” it’s that when the snacks are out of sight, they are out of mind. What is in our sight? Legroom. Seat size. Checked bag fees. You know, the items with a substantial impact on our budget and comfort when flying.
So what’s an airline to do?
You may remember stories about airlines saving millions of dollars simply by removing one olive from every salad served. (To say nothing of the savings they realized by eliminating the salad altogether.) The money saved with small changes – like removing snacks from coach – pales in comparison to revenue generated by increasing capacity (thus reducing legroom) or charging passengers to check a bag. Which is to say the industry is willing to make a small sacrifice to “enhance customer experience” but not willing to make substantial improvements to the passenger experience at the cost of major revenue enhancements.
And why should they? Thanks to consolidation and compression (mergers mean fewer airlines, which results in fewer flights), planes are flying at record capacity, even with extra seats added. Costs are down and profits are up. In their view, things must be working.
We want our cake. And we want to eat it, too.
Some might argue that the airlines have done exactly what we wanted: they have kept fares low. That means something else has to generate revenue. We may have complained loudly, but when United instituted the checked bag fee in 2008, people kept right on buying those tickets. If the public stopped flying United then and there, nobody would have followed suit. Instead, we made concessions for affordable flights. Concessions that will be hard to win back so long as airlines are more concerned with satisfying Wall Street rather than passengers.
Rest assured, the airlines know our pain points but, with fewer carriers and almost no distinction between them, voting with your wallet is not effective. We need a maverick willing to try something new and champion a better passenger experience. And we, as passengers, need to be willing to pony up for them.
Enter increased competition from international carriers. Heavily subsidized flag carriers like Korean Air, Emirates, Qatar and others offer very attractive products, often at very competitive prices. Granted, they all serve the international market, but they could make a serious dent in American carriers’ passenger manifests. Which is why the airlines are fighting for government regulation now. They want the government to help protect their bottom line, as opposed to the last few decades of wanting the government off of their backs. If the foreign carriers are allowed to continue operating as they do today, the American fleets will need to make their products more attractive. One result could be more comfortable cabins and better amenities.
Just how dumb to they think we are?
Here’s the kicker that proves to me that airline executives are removed from reality: In announcing the changes, Fernand Fernandez, vice president of global marketing at American Airlines, said “we know that we have customers who select our airline based on price and we’re really excited to offer them a product that is superior to choosing an ultra-low cost carrier.”
Because a pack of cookies is what defines superior. Oh look – squirrel!