Bad news for Imperial Class?

You may recall my prediction that in about five years, the three legacy major airlines in the US will merge and discontinue coach class service. This would leave them with a 2-class product, business and a superpremium offering I called “Imperial Class.”  You can read more in the press release, available on the Articles page.

Grant Martin, however, notes in a piece on Quartz.com, that none of the all-business-class airlines, started during the last decade, succeeded. The sole survivor, Open Skies, now flies a dual coach / business class configuration.

Why did they fail?  Perhaps this is the wrong approach because most new ideas fail. What Martin does instead is identify several factors that successful airlines have that the all-business-class start-ups didn’t. Tellingly, the first is agility:

It’s that inability to quickly adapt to new industry standards that may slow down any new prospect in the all-business-class space. Unlike traditional carriers, many boutiques lack the deep pockets to stomach extensive cabin retrofits and upgrades.

It doesn’t take great expertise in Boyd’s strategic framework, or in maneuver warfare, or even much common sense to figure out that if you’re going to be a mouse amongst elephants, you need to be pretty agile. Put another way, your orientation — your mental model of what’s going on — must be more accurate than your competitors’. (Is yours? Oh, really? Show me.)

Another point is that airline travel isn’t just a service but an entire ecosystem:

And while premium passengers generally place a higher value on the inflight product versus the brand, many are extremely loyal to their traditional carriers. Nearly all of the airlines currently offering transatlantic service offer points in a loyalty program, and after several flights, those benefits can be very lucrative towards further upgrades or elite status.

Again, an orientation issue.

Although a start-up has a problem trying to match the level of amenities (and obsequiousness) that a major airline can offer, a consolidation of those same majors could really go all out. This is what I was driving at in the press release.

On a related topic, I still think it’s a great time to start an airline if you can play the cheng / chi game better than today’s competition and survive long enough to exploit the results. Elon Musk put his finger on the essence of the matter: “You want to be innovating so fast that you invalidate your prior patents, in terms of what really matters. It’s the velocity of innovation that matters.” I think that if you adopt this attitude, and create an organization that can do it, you’re much more likely to be successful than by putting all your chips — and your attention — on your original product / service idea.

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