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Don’t expect things to get better in air travel this year

“The passenger experience was a hot topic in 2014 as airlines and airports worked to make the travel process better,” said the lead of a recent report in the trade press. And it is typical of others that covered the same topic. The industry threw a big conference on the passenger experience, giving lots of talks and presenting lots of papers. But if you really think that your experience will actually get better this year, I’ve got a couple of bridges I’d like to sell you. Two themes pervade the output of all this flurry of activity.

It’s the airports’ problem

Some industry leaders tagged airports as primary culprits. “The primary focus is to get to the gate in the least amount of time, but there’s been no change on how to facilitate the process and make it easier for passengers,” said one. “There’s a disconnect between airlines and airports, because airlines don’t give enough information to airports to help passengers to the gate.” Really? The problem is that airlines don’t give airports enough information?

A more realistic appraisal came from those mavens who noted that airport security is a “choke point” and a “big pain point.” Yes, that’s true, and the U.S. Global Entry and Trusted Traveler programs are helping:

• Global Entry is helping a lot: Travelers willing to pay the $100 five-year membership fee really can walk right past some long lines, stopping only briefly at an automated kiosk.

• Trusted Traveler helps sometimes, when regular security lines are long and ‘trusted” lines are short. Sadly, that’s not always the case – I’ve seen airports where the trusted line moved more slowly than the ordinary traveler line.

But Trusted Traveler benefits only travelers within the United States and Global Entry benefits only U.S. citizens returning to the U.S. from foreign countries.

Some sort of full reciprocity with major destinations, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain would really help – but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

One positive development is the potential expansion of U.S. preclearance – conducting U.S. customs and immigration processes at overseas departure airports rather than upon arrival in the U.S. We’ve had preclearance at 15 Canadian, Irish and nearby island airports for some time, and it has recently been opened in Abu Dhabi. This year, Oslo is apparently in the works, and Stockholm is likely.

But where we really need it is London, Frankfurt and Paris. The U.S. has said, “We’ll do it at any airport willing to pay for it.” Airports, get on it.

Don’t improve the product; distract the customers

Just about everybody in the business also admits that the only improvement for the “main cabin” folks will be in in-flight entertainment and connectivity. As one industry expert put it, “In-flight entertainment is something that can distract from their discomfort onboard.”

That’s the industry’s approach in a nutshell: Don’t improve the core product – install wider seats with more legroom.

Instead, keep them packed in like sardines and try to make them forget their misery with lots of streaming movies, TV and Internet access.

Some are even plugging the personalization of fare bundles as an improvement in the passenger experience rather than what it really is: An improved way to extract more money from customers.

None of the reports I’ve seen even mentioned an important way airlines can improve the customer experience: Even a lousy product is better if delivered on time.

Airlines deliver something like 18 percent of their flights late, and improving that performance – operational excellence – would certainly improve the customer experience more than switching to Starbucks coffee. Look; we all know that, for most travelers, low fares trump everything else, and low fares leave little room for genuine product improvement. That’s how it has been and how it will remain in 2015.