Could One Day We Fly For Free?

(Southwest Airlines at gate B9 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Image from Colton Henline/Wikipedia)

I’m a not really a big fan of flying. Yes, I’m an aviation enthusiast but ironically afraid of flying. Maybe because my previous background as a network engineer and therefore we were trained to avoid what is called ‘a single point of failure’, where one chokepoint or failure of one crucial link could brought the whole network down, hence we need to figure out all kind of alternative plans and contingencies.

So what it has got to do with my fear of flying? Well my thinking was that if I’m on some land or water-based vehicle, I still can make a jump to save my backside but that option is clearly not available once I got airborne. I’m not sure of any airline that allows us to bring our own parachute but even if they would, I’m still not sure how to open an airplane’s door at 35,000 feet. I guess I have to leave it to fate everytime I got onboard.

(Everytime I got some butterfly inside my tummy while flying, I watched this. Clips from YouTube)

Yes, despite tragic news of some horrible aviation incidents and accidents (i.e MH17, MH370, SV763 and KZA1907 and recently JT-610), flying is still statistically the safest mode of transportation. It was said that the probability of getting into an accident to and from an airport is higher than flying itself. Well, I don’t have hard numbers (yet) to approve or disprove that theory but I hope there’s a merit to that.

And the last time I ever got into long-distance flying was 30-hour flight (plus minus, including refuelling in Taiwan and transit in Los Angeles) to Orlando, Florida back in 2008. I managed to control my fear but let’s just say that if possible, I don’t wanna endure it again. Flying over vast body of water (Pacific Ocean) scared the hell out of me.

 

The Proliferation Of Low-cost Airlines

 

(Airbus A320neo of EasyJet at Geneva Airport. Image from Markus Eigenheer/Wikipedia)

The low-cost airlines wasn’t actually new thing. Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA, founded in 1949) somehow was credited as the pioneer of low-cost airlines. Along with much lower fare and friendlier atmosphere, PSA’s business model was copied successfully by others especially Southwest Airlines (which in turned copied by Ryanair and easyJet, which in turn copied by AirAsia, which in turn… well, you get the idea) and spawned numerous other low-cost carriers, either stand-alone or operated under the umbrella of an established airline (i.e Scoot, under Singapore Airlines).

Their ‘simple’ formula? Single passenger class, single aircraft type, buy newer planes in bulk (and get huge discount from manufacturers, which in turn resell it in few years time at profit), almost no IFE (in-flight entertainment) and most importantly, simpler fare structure and ancillary products or non-flight revenues (extra fee for food and beverages, carry-on baggage, priority seats etc).

Yes, it may sounds depressing and cruel, but it also allows more and more people to enjoy flying to some previously underserved destinations. I remember when I was kid that flying is like a very elaborate and expensive affairs and only those who earned like 5-figure income monthly could actually afford it. In fact, my first flight took place in 2004, when I started to work as an IT engineer and need to travel to meet customer (even back then I asked the office administration lady whether I could take a bus instead due to my fear of flying. It was unsuccessful, so that marked my first time travelling in a flying metal tube).

(Airbus A319-109 of Germanwings and an Airbus A320 of Air Berlin at Zurich Airport. Image from Thomas Woodtli/Wikipedia)

And those low-cost airlines (not all, but quite a number) are minting enough money to grow and expanding their workhorses and destinations, whilst stick on flying to the route around maximum of 4-5 hour flight time from their base. If their customers wants to go longer, they still need to go to the route of legacy airlines.

Until recently.

 

(Air Asia X)
(Norwegian Air)
(Wow Air)

For the last at least 5 years, low-cost long haul carrier (LCLH) has started to get more and more traction from frequent travellers (Air Asia X was already operated since 2007 while Laker Airways already operated low-cost transatlantic during the late-70s connecting London and New York City) whom already comfortable enough with the offerings from the likes of Southwest Airlines, easyJet and AirAsia. With the new airplanes from Airbus (i.e Airbus A321LR and A330neo) and Boeing (i.e Boeing 787 and B737 MAX Series), LCLH no longer constrained with limited capacity and range, opening new routes like Kuala Lumpur to Gold Coast (Air Asia X), Rome to Newark & Los Angeles (Norwegian Air) and Reykjavik to San Francisco (WOW Air).

No longer low-cost carrier is associated with short, regional flight. If your backside and spine can hold you together (and vice versa), you’re no longer limited to airlines like KLM or United Airlines. And you no longer have to ponder whether you have to pawn your grandparents shall you need to buy a ticket. The last time I checked, Norwegian Air offer Los Angeles – Paris route for about $169.90 (not including certain fees of course).

The fare is getting lower and lower to some extent that we need to ask ourselves “Is there any chance that one day we need to pay only $0 for certain flights and the fare is not limited to certain number of seats?”

In all honesty, personally I think that that day theoretically possible.. We just have to ask ourselves one small-yet-important question.

“At what price?”

 

Airlines As The Next Google or Facebook

Sen.Orrin Hatch : So, how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?

Mark Zuckerberg : Senator, we run ads.

Sen.Orrin Hatch : I see. That’s great.

Senator, with all due respect, I don’t think you actually see. And I’m not sure if it’s actually great. Good, maybe. But great? I think it is questionable. I just hope Senator Orrin Hatch didn’t really mean it. No disrespect towards anyone, but how many 50, 60 or 70-plus politicians are fluent enough with the Internet technology and economy? How many of us are taking out their credit cards to do simple Google search? Or paying through PayPal to post status updates on Facebook? I think it’s a public and common knowledge that although the services offered by both Google and Facebook (just to name a few) are financially free, it’s actually costing us our privacy (obviously for those who actually care).

In the end, it’s true that there’s no such thing as free lunch.

So what does it takes for airline fares to fell all the way to $0. Obviously either by turning themselves into the flying Google or Facebook (or working with them).

(Panasonic Avionics’s Jazz Seat)

What will happen if i.e KLM or Delta behaves like Google or Facebook? Let’s forget about the online booking portion in the equation, as it’s already a place for airlines to collect our information more and more.

For a start, a cool seats with built-in IFE like image above from Panasonic Avionics could make a comeback to low-cost airlines (definitely beats extra fee for renting small tablet or worse, no entertainment at all). Some relatively old movies (but still good enough for some light entertainment at 35,000 feet) or popular drama series rerun (who can resist ‘Friends’?) could be offered for free, but 20% of the viewing time could be filled with ads.

Not only plain, bland ads. A personalised ads.

(A street view of Monaco, minus the racing cars. Image from Peter’s Travel)

Since the airlines already knew our departure city and destination, they could offer wide variety of ads tailored to our specific potential needs. No only just some limited offer to visit some modern museums or amusement parks in Paris, they could also fine-tuned it to specific activities around the area based on our historical preference (if you’re a big fan of F1, perhaps they would offer a short trip to Monaco outside the racing weekend so that you can see what the street at Monte Carlo looks  like without the crash barrier and a racing cars speed through the corners at 150 km/h). Or perhaps professional connection or interest (maybe a visit to coworking space or startup accelerator Station F?). Maybe if they find out that you’re a big fan of the movie Armageddon or G.I.Joe – Rise of the Cobra (by keep playing certain scenes again and again on YouTube), the airlines (or their affiliates) would offer you a visit to Eiffel Tower, perhaps with discounted price as well.

Or what about after we returned home. Airlines could take cue from Facebook and reminds us on specific date a year later that we’ve travelled to i.e Universal Studio, Orlando, Florida, and asks us whether we want to visit it again later (or maybe other similar amusement parks). Perhaps the airlines system will be smart enough to show who else within our circle of friends who might be interested to go there as well and automatically proposing a group trip next year. Even ‘better’, if the system can propose a personal loan (connecting to some financial companies) for us to take so that we could afford that visit. Immoral? Unethical? Maybe. But who could or should underestimate peer pressure?

I just hope the ads is suitable for everyone to watch including the one who seats next to you. It would be embarrassing if somehow there’s pop-up ads showing ads to enhance some specific body part that’s crucial for human reproduction.

Yes, 7 or 8 hours of IFE filled with ads (and more ads), for the sake of flying for free.

 

Price vs. Privacy

But how far should it go? There’s one founder of low-cost airline that I remember (not in verbatim) said that his customers won’t care much about anything else as long as the flight ticket is cheap (safety is always paramount). After all, who wouldn’t want a cheap flight ticket, especially to a popular destinations like New York or Tokyo? Everyone and their pets would kill for this kind of offer, right?

But at what price?

Honestly, I love free things too. And one of the destinations in my bucket list is St Maarten in Caribbean (a bar at its beach is a great place to watch incoming planes). And from where I live, I calculate it will take around 20 hours of flight time (not including a stopover or layover somewhere). And how many of us can stand watching hours of movies and dramas (and ads). Yes, you can always take some sleeping pills and switched to deep sleep mode once the plane fly at the cruising altitude, but how many sleeping pills (or alcohol) can your body take, especially if you’re a frequent traveller? And how sure are we that we won’t be nudged into not watching anything onboard? What if one day Netflix decides to join the party and launched a new drama series available only at 35,000 feet?

(Maho Beach, St Maarten, Caribbean. Image from The Telegraph)

Yes, we can say that we should have option to pay the full fare, thumb our nose to the AI that powers the airline system and decides what we want and won’t do during the flight like reading books or playing Tetris (anyone still have them?) but how far before we realise that “Why should I pay when others are flying for free? The only thing they have to do is watching hours of ads.”

I’m not sure if any airlines wants to test this theory of price vs. privacy, but if they do then I’m sure there’s a lot of takers. Whether or not it’s financially sustainable and manages to fly above the clouds (pun intended) of government regulations in the long run, that’s another topic for another day. Maybe Ryanair will be the one to give it a try. After all, proposing some stupid interesting ideas is not something alien to them. But if United Airlines wants to try, just make sure they have and implement a policy that they won’t drag anyone out of the plane just because some people don’t want to watch ads. And if we ever reached that $0 fare level, then the next possible question could be “How soon before airlines pay us for flying with them?”.

Sounds absurd, but in the age of economic uncertainties, never underestimate what people (including me) are willing to do to save a penny. The real question should be “What it actually costs us in the long run?”

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