I was not conscious of the change till I reached the airport gate. For many years now, I have been flying my favourite airline. Every time I reach the airport I go to a particular belt, then proceed to a particular check-in counter. I know which seat I want and which welcome drink to choose. This time, someone else had bought the ticket. As I took out the ticket to show the security personnel, the change began to hit me. A uniformed person came and took charge of my baggage. As soon as I reached the vicinity of the check-in counter, a lady came and took my ticket. No standing in the queue, all I had to tell her was my seat preference.
The flights from and to Calcutta were equally dramatic. The ambience and the facilities were comparable to any international flight. The seats had an assurance of comfort. The welcome drink looked its part. Televised safety demonstration looked far more convincing than ill-at-ease cabin crew doing a dumb charade. In-flight boredom has always been an issue for me and I was happy to graduate from Sudoku to soothing music on my headphone. Every step of the way, the airline was walking the extra mile. The whisper was distinct — I am different, I am better.
The domestic air travel market has come a long way from the classless transportation of yesteryears. There are many layers of the market visible upfront. First there is this underbelly made up of mass transit through no-frill airlines. The regular airlines have also reacted. They have devoted much of their economy class to create the middle segment of the market. The check fares often compete well with the price of the cheaper airlines as the date of journey draws nearer. One suspects that now perhaps nobody flies economy class by paying the full fare.
It is a war out there. One would normally expect that real competition would rule the front of the aircraft — the top segment of the aviation market. There too, a price game is on. For frequent fliers, there are multiple flight coupons that one can buy at nearly half the regular price. From all indications, the domestic air travel market in its entirety has shifted to the vulgar end of marketing — a battle fought on prices. Brand choices are being made on cost of air travel rather than the value that such cost fetches.
This, however, is likely to be an unstable equilibrium. Slowly price will lose potency. Between one airline and another, at each price level, there is already very little to choose. At price parity, consumer choice even in the no-frills segment will move to the add-on arena. What do they do when a flight is cancelled' How tough is it to get drinking water' Such issues through word of mouth will influence choices more and more. Even if the back of the bus takes time to graduate, the elite segment will not waste any time to reward an airline walking the extra mile. Sure, convenience will play a major role in business travel. Number of flights, timings of arrival and departures et al will play a significant role in choosing a carrier. But even that will get equated and then the real marketing battle will start — what more can I do for the flier'
At first, differences will be felt between airlines in the quality of their execution of the same value-add ideas. Then will start the more crucial phase. An airline will be judged in terms of how well it can define what is of value to the consumer. Not once, but continuously. Variety and change will dominate marketing planning.
They say competition benefits the consumer. It sure does. My trip was possibly a harbinger of the happy days ahead. I do not remember ever having Crab Thermidor at 35,000 feet above Indian sea level.