Tyler Brûlé hopes 2014 heralds a return to the days of connected air travel run by people who respond to their customers’ needs
Do you ever get the sense that dark, unseen forces are conspiring to keep you in your place? That there’s some sinister agency doing everything in its power to ensure you don’t venture too far beyond the front door? That whenever and wherever possible a set of obstacles will be unleashed at just the right moment (a blizzard? Rail strike? gps collapse?) to thwart your exquisitely organised plans and dampen your sense of adventure? You might look at a map of the world and determine that you can get to most of the places you fancy visiting with a maximum of two connecting flights. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a privately operated long-range aircraft you can cover most of the planet direct, non-stop. It all looks straightforward enough but in practice it’s becoming increasingly joyless to get from A to B. The journey time, whether by car or Airbus, is longer than it was a decade ago – and no, we’re not just talking about the collapse of Concorde services.
As recently as the start of this century, the journey itself was still part of the appeal of travel. At airports all over the world you could arrive curbside 30 minutes before departure, toss your luggage onto the X-ray conveyor belt and stride to your gate. On board a European-owned carrier you might have been treated to a soup service on a short-haul evening flight followed by a choice of three meals. At the other end your regular driver might have been waiting at your arrival gate to help with your bags and speed you away. There was a speed, ease and simplicity that helped the whole big transport thing tick over nicely. There were people from start to finish who all worked for the same company, plus a layer of management that knew how the system worked. Most importantly, there were leaders at aviation companies who cared about service and experience rather than the current crop of ex-management consultants and engineers promoted above their station. If you’re feeling dissatisfied by the state of travel today, it’s because the entire chain is a disconnected collection of parts that are mostly outsourced while trying to pretend they’re united by the same uniform, name tag and livery.
If you happen to be reading this on an aircraft or in an airport, play a little game I call “Who’s in charge?” Is someone managing the departure gate or is the chaos of check-in due to the fact that all the answers are supposed to be found on a back-lit screen after the agent enters 12,473 key strokes? If you’re sitting in the cabin of a 777 belonging to British Airways, try to spot the person in charge and then consider what leadership looks like at the airline today. Who does he or she look up to? Is there anyone at the airline that inspires people to work harder?
And it’s not just BA or Europe’s legacy carriers: most airlines and even many hotels are now run the same way. As we sent this issue off to press I dashed to Toronto for a Christmas party for clients and crossed the Atlantic on a well-worn Air Canada Boeing wide-body. The experience was the same: joyless, and without structure. Once upon a time the crew might have been up to the task but it’s hard to crack a smile when every element of service has been cut to the bone and managed by people charged with procuring wine/cheese/magazines rather than tasting, sampling and then selecting them with care for the paying passenger.
That said, the situation for crew on many legacy carriers is a difficult one; gone are the glory days of monopolies and a world without cheap carriers. Tough decisions have had to be taken about costs in order to survive, resulting in grumpy faces up and down aisles around the world. Sure, it’s not like it used to be in the golden days when a crew could spend a week in Singapore, fly on to Sydney and enjoy another week before heading back to Europe. However, it’s not the fault of the passenger in seat 3f that new competitors with bottomless pockets have entered the market. If airports and airlines in North America, Europe and Australasia want to stay in the game they need to invest in infrastructure, pay for frontline leadership to raise the bar and show the value of real experience rather than marketing and mirrors.
As part of our editorial mission for 2014 you’ll see us paying more attention to the travel industry. This will play out not only in the form of uncovering the best in class but also offering solutions to inspire companies to do better. It’s all well and good editing an issue devoted to charting new courses and uncovering new zones of opportunity but the modern traveller is looking for brands that can make the journey an enjoyable part of reaching the final destination.
Cheers to a 2014 of better carriers, smoother rails and hotel rooms with windows that open onto the city below.
For more from our editor in chief, read his column in the ‘FT Weekend’.