I traveled close to 24,000 miles by air in 2014. During that time, I’ve encountered an industry with an irritating and archaic business model—mundane booking processes, a barrage of fees, inconsistent customer service experiences, and a mode of transportation in need of a breath of fresh air.
So how can a business really change the way we fly? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about constantly since I traveled seven countries in seven months last year. I want to encourage startups that are eager to challenge this space because I know customers would appreciate a better option.
Disruption within aviation is already over.
First, we have to look at how disruption in the aviation game is a limited opportunity. Not much has changed in six years when other industries have seen immense shifts in their business models. Low prices and cost cutting can only go so far; even with a-la-carte sales tactics like unbundling options, the cost of seats, baggage, in-flight entertainment and food doesn’t do much for customers. The unpredictable economics of energy have shown that even as we enjoy lower than expected gas prices, airlines can still charge the same—if not more—for fares.
When I went through the list of hurdles, I realized that the larger opportunity isn’t about improving how airlines work, it’s about improving the presence of alternatives to flying that are already on the ground.
Trains. Buses. Car-share programs. These options obviously won’t solve the long haul overseas need for airline travel, but it does present a competitive opportunity to overhaul transcontinental travel. There are places in the world that either have an opening in a ground based travel industry to improve, or the chance to evolve regional habits into viable transportation options for tourists and visitors.
Europe’s airlines compete with a solid rail offering.
Purchase an inexpensive euro-rail pass, and you can wind through a handful of countries in a few days while taking in the breathtaking countryside. Right now, I’d say Europe is the best option for a model that can be improved or recreated elsewhere. A potential airline to railway partnership can offer a bundled package that shares customers across two different transport modes. Why leave this opportunity to just the itinerary planners like Expedia who bundle options like flights, hotels, and ground connections?
Asia land options are ripe with opportunity in a region where airlines are just beginning to become affordable for most people.
India, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and Korea are known for their rail systems. Some, like India or South East Asia, are iconic time capsules of a long railway history chugging through mountains and plains. Others, like Japan or Korea, display the potential for high-speed rail that lessens its impact on the environment, while still providing a convenient and comfortable travel option. These modes aren’t just for gap year travellers or soul-searching backpackers—there’s a viable opportunity here to provide service offerings that cater to a growing middle class. Startups can look to improve land options in developing nations to offer a larger variety of choices to new types of travelers. Booking technology needs a huge lift, as the increasingly mobile region will look to more fluid purchasing channels for their transportation needs.
Australia and New Zealand offer car share programs that could do wonders for travellers.
Take a road trip through Australia or New Zealand and you’ll see backpackers, families, and strangers sharing campervans, minivans, and buses to travel the oceanic landscape. Cities and towns provide rugged and modern options for parking your vehicle overnight until the next day’s journey. But just because the mode of transport is primarily known to attract budget or young travelers who want to “go it rough”, I think there’s an immense opportunity to develop a higher value option for families or business travelers who want to travel by land comfortably. You could even borrow the Asian model of hiring a driver for hourly trips and provide personal drivers for a tiered pricing option (low value is a sedan, higher value could be a properly decked out bus with all the fixings).
To the startups who want to challenge this market: these ideas to transform long or short haul land travel can create an imbalance in the oligopoly that is the airline industry. Companies in this space would have to refocus routes and schedules; staffing and resources would come into question and open opportunities for labor groups to negotiate better working climates; both public and private sectors could rethink travel options not just with cost in-mind, but with environmental and regulation efficiencies in-mind.
Beyond Europe, many of the options I’ve talked about need more than smart branding to capture the attention of uninformed customers. These options have to be convenient. They’ll have to be affordable. And they’ll have to be safe. But I bet there’s someone out there that can seize the opportunity that has presented itself, and I look forward to watching the first startup that takes on the challenge.