Why have traditional low cost airlines reached the beginning of the end? Well, why did they succeed in carving out huge market shares from traditional airlines in the first place?
They succeeded because they understood the over-riding priority of travellers in the late 90’s and early millennium: Low cost. Nothing else mattered, really. And the reason was that we all suddenly had the opportunity to visit Rome, Barcelona, Dublin and Paris several times a year for weekend get-aways, Champion League matches or visiting friends and family. It was a shift on the same scale as the removal of the iron curtain in 1989. It gave the peoples of Europe the freedom and, not least, the possibility to travel.
So far so good, but of course, nothing lasts forever: Low cost airlines are constantly hunting for new revenue sources and with major socio-demographic changes taking place, travellers’ priorities, too, are changing. Check out these two YouTube video clips. Apart from being funny enough that people spread them virally, they are also clear early signs that Ryanair (and their mates) have reached the end of the road:
Or the Aussie way, which is 100% in line with the recent customer statement on EasyJet:
“EasyJet are following hot in the heels of Ryanair. Was just booking my flight to the UK. Once I’d made my choice they tried to whack on 170kr. for a check-in bag, then a load of other stuff. I also had to pay 70kr. to pay by credit card. Each step I went through after making my flight decision just irritated me.”
Finally, I had fun at Twitterfall.com. It’s a website constantly streaming all tweets written worldwide. You can filter it by any term. I tried to filter it by “ryanair” and I got approximately 1 tweet per second, about 80% being slightly to very negative. The illustration below is a totally random selection.
The digital natives
There are two trends spelling major changes for the airline industry.
Trend 1: One is the trend among low cost airline companies to become the exact opposite of low cost, but not actually admitting it. That’s what these viral videos are about.
Trend 2: The other trend is a mega trend, it’s irreversible, it’s fundamental and far bigger than airline positioning. I’m talking about the emergence of what the American writer and speaker Marc Prensky calls the generation of digital natives. Danish writer and media expert, Morten Bay, author of Generation Network, recently coined a new phrase for the new type of homo sapiens: homo conexus, the connected man. To quote Prensky, they are the first generation to grow up with new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, mobile phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.
And hey, they are no longer kids and they are no longer a small minority. In the next 3-5 years they will become a much bigger spending factor than the rest of us (the “digital immigrants”). That factors becomes even bigger, because some of us immigrants will try to follow the natives in their purchasing patterns and preferences.
Why is all this important to airline companies and how can that spell the end for Ryanair and EasyJet?
Well, I previously spoke about the “illusion of free”. Digital natives, the networked generation, have grown up on free, or at least the appearance, the illusion of free. But, of course, nothing in this world is free. There is always a cost associated with getting “stuff” for free, one of the most important costs being that you agree to be exposed to ads. According to Morten Bay digital natives are literally bottle-fed on advertising exposure and can spot “fake” instantly. On the other hand, they love authenticity and honesty.
The second Ryanair and all the other low cost airlines started to cross that threshold and went from being “cheap, low cost” to “appearing to be cheap, low cost”, they lost their credibility. The viral videos prove it, the millions of tweets prove it. They’re on the highway to hell.
Future opportunities with digital natives
I’m actually amazed that nobody in an otherwise highly competitive airline industry has spotted the potential.
Now, I would say that I have booked and am booking my fair share of airline tickets across several airline companies. And admitted: Things have become a little easier over the last couple of years, but do I feel that the process appeals to my emotions? Far from it. Perhaps I get emotionally involved in the awareness phase (I dream about going to Barcelona, when I see an ad), but during purchase, pre-travel, during travel and post-travel I am totally stripped of the two most important purchasing factors to digital natives: Emotional involvement and convenience. On the contrary, when travelling low cost airlines I am bombarded with negative emotions and inconvenience.
Not that the opportunities don’t present themselves: Take Kayak.com (or the Danish me-too equivalent Momondo) or TripIt (via LinkedIn). They all add value, emotional involvement and more and more convenience in the travel experience, but so far they are just scratching the surface of opportunities with “Generation Digital Natives”.
Therefore, my single piece of advice to the “old” airlines is this: Become the airline of choice for digital natives.