Airline fees go through the roof … but are we actually surprised?

For airline consumers, the news has been unremittingly bleak in the past few years, what with ancillary fees rising and in-flight comfort going the way of the dodo bird.

But when you think about it, this is something that was bound to happen.

According to the Associated Press, the average roundtrip fare for domestic flights in the United States today is approximately $500.

Let’s compare this to when I was a student in college 40+ years ago. Back then, coach airfare between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Nashville, TN typically ran approximately $250 — so roughly half of what today’s figure would be.

But when we calculate the inflation factor, that $250 fare translates to nearly $1,200.

The equivalent of $1,200 a pop explains why it was financially necessary for me to stay in Nashville over various holidays such as Thanksgiving break instead of flying home for only a few days or a week.

On the plus side, flying back then was a breeze compared to today. Not just the stress and irritation of the terminal security lines, but also far fewer travelers, with planes often only one-third or half-full.

Deregulation followed by vastly cheaper airfares have led to flying being within nearly everyone’s budget, which is all very egalitarian but also making the air travel experience high on the “frustration factor.”

How about the airlines? They’ve had to deal with all sorts of regulatory developments along with sharply higher operating costs — jet fuel just for starters.

And while the airlines have benefited from serving more travelers, that hasn’t made up for the decline in fare prices.  So it isn’t surprising that the airlines started cutting in other ways.

First it was in-flight meals, moving away from delicious hot platters to sandwiches … then to peanuts or pretzels … and now to nothing sometimes.

Next, it was the removal of pillows and blankets.

Accessing in-flight entertainment costs extra, too — as well as gaining access to cyber-communications.

And has anyone noticed the “squeeze play” going on in the coach section? That isn’t your imagination.  Today’s typical coach seat is 17 inches wide, which is nearly a 10% decrease from the 18.5 inches from about a decade ago.  (That corresponds with an average 8% heavier traveler over the same period, by the way.)

Space constraints spill over into the ever-smaller footprint of airplane lavatories. If you find that you can’t turn around in them, that’s because they’re literally smaller than a phone booth.  I know I try to avoid using them as much as possible.

In any case, all this nibbling around the edges hasn’t been able to make up for airline revenue losses elsewhere. So now we have fees being levied for checked luggage — in the range of $25 to $40 per item.  For a while the charges were levied on extra pieces of luggage, but now Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines are charging for the first checked item, too.  Among the major carriers, only Southwest remains a holdout — but one wonders for how much longer.

And reservation change fees? They’re increasing for everyone — even people who have traditionally been willing to pay more for an air ticket if they’d have the opportunity alter their travel plans without a being charged whopping change fee.  Those fees can sometimes go as high as $200 — nearly the cost of purchasing an entirely new one-way ticket.

According to transportation and hospitality marketing firm IdeaWorks, in 2017 the top 10 airlines brought in nearly $30 billion in ancillary revenues — a figure that’s sure to be significantly larger in 2018. It’s almost as if the ancillary revenues are as important as the base fare.  As Aditi Shrikant, a journalist for Vox puts it, “Buying a plane ticket has been stripped down to mean that you are paying for your mere right to get on the plane.  Anything else is extra.”

In their own lumbering way, the U.S. Congress is now making noises about cracking town on what it characterizes as unreasonable airline fees.  I’m not sure that any such legislative moves would have the desired effect.  Already, Doug Parker, American Airlines’ CEO, predicts that of Congress moves in that direction, the industry would respond by making airline tickets nonrefundable:  “We — like the baseball team, like the opera — would say, ‘We’re sorry, it was nonrefundable.'”

What are your thoughts about the unbundling of services and fees in the airline industry? While that business model gives passengers the choice of flying for less without access to the amenities, it turns the process of purchasing an airline ticket into something that seems akin to a fleecing.

Do you have particular criticisms about the current state of affairs? What would you prefer to be different about the scenario?  Please share your comments below.

America’s healthiest cities are … where?

The American College of Sports Medicine changes its annual evaluation to comparatively evaluate cites rather than metropolitan areas.

For the past decade, the American College of Sports Medicine has issued its annual American Fitness Index® report that identifies America’s healthiest urban areas.

Until this year, the index included America’s 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), but the decision was made in 2018 to switch to incorporated cities. The new Index covers the 100 largest such entities.

Why was the change made? According to the ACSM, the older approach “provided important and valuable general messages, but limited the ability to provide targeted assistance to city and community leaders that need specific data at the local level.”

In addition to allowing more localized data to be studied, the new approach enables cities in states that weren’t represented at all in previous years to be included.

As for the various health measures comparatively studied, they remain the same – 33 indicators available from up-to-date, publicly accessible sources.

To build the ranking, the 33 indicators were combined to create sub-scores for “personal health” and “community and environment categories. Individual indicators were weighted relative to their impact on community fitness, and then combined to create the ultimate ranking.

The personal health indicators consisted of behaviors like eating habits, exercise and smoking as well as outcomes like health conductions (incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, etc.)

Community/environment indicators covered factors like the built environment (parkland as a percent of city geographic size, walking/bicycle trails, etc.), recreational facilities (playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, etc.), and policy and funding factors.

Putting it all together, America’s healthiest city achieves a 77.7 overall score (out of a possible 100.0 points). Shown below is the Top Ten ranking among America’s 100 largest cities for the ASCM’s American Fitness Index:

#1. Arlington, VA

#2. Minneapolis, MN

#3. Washington, DC

#4. Madison, WI

#5. Portland, OR

#6. Seattle, WA

#7. Denver, CO

#8. St. Paul, MN

#9. San Jose, CA

#10. Boise, ID

Notice the propensity of cities located in the northern reaches of the United States. Several of these I know first-hand, having lived and worked in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul.  I completely understand that the ACSM’s report means when it cites the following factors for #2-rank Minneapolis:

“Building culture of physical activity isn’t done overnight. Minneapolis, MN reaps the rewards of early planning to set aside important parklands and establish a semiautonomous parks board to maintain and protect the lands, featuring over 6,800 acres in the park system and 102 miles of biking and walking paths.” 

A Minneapolis lake — two miles from downtown.

[It doesn’t hurt that Minneapolis has seven good-sized natural lakes plus a 20-mile meandering creek within the city limits; what else would one do but put parks, green spaces and trails around them?  That would be a no-brainer decision even a century ago, when “fitness” wasn’t quite the same universally accepted aspirational goal.]

Commenting on Arlington as being the #1-ranked city, the ACSM’s report noted:

“Arlington, VA is home to the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, Civil War battlefields, great local parks, as well as many people living healthy lifestyles.”

Arlington, VA: Hugging the Potomac River just south of Washington, DC.

When we dip into the next group of 10 cities on the listing, we do see the appearance of several located in the southern portions of the country:

#11. Oakland, CA

#12. Plano, TX

#13. Irvine, CA

#14. San Francisco, CA

#15. Boston, MA

#16. San Diego, CA

#17. Lincoln, NE

#18. Raleigh, NC

#19. Fremont, CA

#20. Atlanta, GA

Who’s at the bottom of the heap? Some of the cities might not surprise you, but a few seem curious to me.  How can it be that the two largest cities in Oklahoma end up at or near the bottom?  And what’s up with Indianapolis and Louisville?

#91. Tulsa, OK

#92. North Las Vegas, NV

#93. Gilbert, AZ

#94. Fresno, CA

#95. Wichita, KS

#96. Toledo, OH

#97. Detroit, MI

#98. Louisville, KY

#99. Indianapolis, IN

#100. Oklahoma City, OK

Oklahoma City: “Hey, let’s hit the streets for a jog!”

If any readers have insights they can share about these “bottom of the barrel” cities, we’re all ears.

To find out how each of the 100 largest cities ranked in the 2018 ASCM evaluation — along with seeing details on the 33 indicators studied to build the American Fitness Index, click here.

Are there no alternatives for the alternative press?

The slow death of America’s alt-weeklies can’t help but feel a little disheartening.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading the so-called “alternative press.” I’ve found it a fascinating sociological exercise, where certain fringe or controversial topics and points-of-view are often aired long before they enter more mainstream discourse.

But that was before the Internet changed everything.

Before the ubiquity of the Internet, the role that alternative weeklies played was arguably one of consequence. I can recall a time where one could encounter a dozen or more papers freely available in retail establishments such as record stores, coffeehouses and head shops in any medium sized or larger North American city.

The editorial focus of these alt-weeklies covered the gamut – from alternative music, film and literature to environmental causes, LGBTQ interests and other social action priorities – not to mention various ethnic sub-groups.

Basically, any “ism” or group that was underrepresented in the mainstream press was a prime editorial focus and audience target of the alternative press.

One could chart the fortunes of cultural trends by the tone of the editorial writing in these publications – ranging from optimism and anticipation to depression or even rage – depending on the prevailing sociological or political currents of the day.

One friend of mine called it the “alt-weekly shrill-o-meter” – with the decibel level rising or falling with the fortunes of urban-progressive forces in America.

One of the foundational premises of alt-weeklies was that they should be available free to everyone, and therefore they were given wide distribution everywhere urban-aware people congregated.

The costs of production, printing and distribution were paid for through varied and frequently entertaining (of the voyeur sort) advertising.

Twin Cities-based pop music star Prince on the cover of City Pages (1980s).

Back in the late 1980s I was acquainted with a fellow who sold advertising for one such paper, Minneapolis-based City Pages.  He earned a tidy-if-modest living selling advertising space for independent restaurants, funky specialty retailers, dive bars, performance spaces and the myriad music groups that were prevalent on the Twin Cities scene.

Other regular advertisers he relied on were the ones peddling more “questionable” fare like phone chat lines (of whatever persuasion one might prefer) and other services one can euphemistically characterize as “adult.”

Some people contend that these advertisers did as much as anything to keep many an alt-weekly publication afloat in the pre-Internet days.

The point is, in their heyday the alternative press played an important role in American urban culture – even if it existed on the margins of society and played a somewhat less-than “conventionally upstanding” role in the process.

And another thing: These alt-weeklies reflected the personalities of the cities in which they operated.  Despite the inevitable superficial similarities between them, I always recognized distinct aspects of each publication that made it a true product of its place.  (Speaking personally, I found this to be the case in Phoenix, Nashville, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Baltimore, where I lived and worked from the 1970s to the 1990s.)

Unfortunately, the past 15 years haven’t been kind at all to this corner of the publishing world. With the rise of the Internet (where “anything goes” editorially is an understatement), coupled with inexorably increasing costs to prepare and distribute a paper-based news product, the business environment has turned into a classic squeeze-play for these alternative papers.

Adding to those problems is the challenge of shrinking advertising revenues. Publishers aren’t facing merely the general decline of revenues from would-be advertisers who can now publicize themselves just as effectively online at a lower cost.  It’s also the near-total banishment of adult-oriented advertising, as alt-weeklies have been shamed into dropping those ads due to changing societal attitudes about the objectification and exploitation of women (and men, too).

Because of these dynamics, in recent years the main story about the alternative press has been a predictable (and dreary) one: how these papers have been dropping like flies.  Whereas once there were a dozen or more alternative papers published in a typical urban market the size of a St. Louis or Pittsburgh, today there may be just one or two.

In smaller urban markets, there may be none at all.

The April 2, 2009 issue of the Missoula Independent.

Just this past week, the last non-student run alt-weekly publication in the entire state of Montana – the Missoula Independent – shut down for good.  Employees received this warm-and-fuzzy communiqué from the publisher, Lake Enterprises:

“This is to give you notice that we are closing the Missoula Independent as of September 11, 2018. As of that time, the offices will be closed and you are not to report to work or come into the building.”

In a now-familiar story line, closing Montana’s last remaining alt-weekly publication came down to a simple calculation of revenues vs. costs. (It probably didn’t help that the magazine’s staff had voted to unionize earlier in the year.)  And adding insult to injury, Lake Enterprises has also shuttered the publication’s archives – all 27 years of it.

Suddenly, it’s as if the Missoula Independent never existed.

This alt-weekly publication’s experience is similar to numerous others. Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana, had this to say about the Missoula Independent’s fate after the previous owner sold the publication to Lee Enterprises:

“There was – almost immediately – a pretty good chance this was going to happen. Other alt-weeklies that have been purchased by paper chains have been closed.”

Indeed, it’s a scenario that’s been playing out all over the country: An alt-weekly begins to struggle; new owners move in with the objective of saving the publication, only to cut staffing to near-zero or shut down completely when the old (or new) business model cannot be sustained.

The final issue of Baltimore City Paper (November 1, 2017).

During 2017 it was announced that the 40-year-old Baltimore City Paper would be publishing its last issue by the end of that year.  That’s exactly what happened — by early November as it turned out.

And in fact, no publication is immune – even an iconic brand like New York City’s The Village Voice.

Earlier this month, the world witnessed the effective demise of that vaunted alt-weekly – a publication that some people consider the best exemplar of the genre.

The March 17, 1992 issue of The Village Voice.

Village Voice publisher Pete Barbey, who acquired the media property in 2015 and turned it into an online-only publication in 2017, has now shuttered the publication completely barely a year later.

“Today is kind of a sucky day,” Barbey reportedly told Village Voice employees in a phone conference call.  “Due to, basically, business realities, we’re going to stop publishing new Village Voice material.”

At least in this case, a veritable treasure trove of Village Voice archival material will be digitized and remain available in cyberspace.  Approximately half of the publication’s employees are being kept on for a period of time to carry out that mission … but no new Village Voice journalism will ever again be produced.

As anyone who knows me personally can attest, I don’t come out of the “counter-culture” movement – nor would I consider that many of my personal or political views reflect those that are typically espoused by the writers and editors of the alternative press.

And yet … I can’t help but empathize with the comments of freelance writer Melynda Fuller, who has opined:

Melynda Fuller

“The loss of alternative weeklies feels particularly personal. They act as mirrors for the complex lives lived in the cities where they publish.  As more outlets are bought up, shut down or prevented from operating at full capacity, a much-needed connection is lost between that city’s culture and its residents.   

Media is in the communications business. In a fractured time in our history, every connection counts.”

How about you? Do you feel any sense of nostalgia for the alternative press?  Is there a particular favorite publication of yours that hasn’t been able to survive?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Fake e-mails: A small percentage … but a big number.

Recently released statistics by e-mail security and authentication service provider Valimail tell us that ~2% of e-mail communications worldwide are deemed “potentially malicious” because they’ve failed DMARC testing (domain-based message authentication, reporting and conformance) and also don’t originate from known, legitimate senders.

That’s a small percentage — seemingly trivial.  But considering the volume of e-mail messages sent every day, it translates into nearly 6.4 billion e-mails sent every day that are “fake, faux and phony.”

Interestingly, the source of those fake e-mails is most often right here in the United States.  Not Russia or Ukraine.  Or Nigeria or Tajikistan.

In fact, no other country even comes close to the USA in the number of fraudulent e-mails.

The good news is that DMARC has made some pretty decent strides in recent times, with DMARC support now covering around 5 billion inboxes worldwide, up from less than 3 billion in 2015.

The federal government is the biggest user of DMARC, but nearly all U.S. tech companies and most Fortune 500 companies also participate.

Participation is one thing, but doing something about enforcement is another. At the moment, Valimail is finding that the enforcement failure rate is well above 70% — hardly an impressive track record.

The Valimail study findings came as the result of analyzing billions of e-mail message authentication requests, along with 3 million+ publicly accessible DMARC records. So, the findings are meaningful and provide good directional indications.

But what are the research implications? The findings underscore the degree to which name brands can be “hijacked” for nefarious purposes.

Additionally, there’s consumer fallout in that many people are increasingly skittish about opening any marketing-oriented e-mails at all, figuring that the risk of importing a virus outweighs any potential benefit from the marketing pitch.

That isn’t an over-abundance of caution, either, because 9 in 10 cyber attacks begin with a phishing e-mail.

It’s certainly enough to keep many people from opening the next e-mail that hits their inbox from a Penneys(?), DirecTV(?) or BestBuy(?).

How about you?  Are you now sending those e-mails straight to the trash as a matter of course?

Amazon and its sellers need each other.

If you speak with small businesses that sell products online, many will tell you that they chafe under the strong-arm tactics of Amazon and its seller policies.

On the other hand, what’s their alternative?

The reality is that it takes about the same amount of time and effort to run a Walmart or eBay store as it does to run a store at Amazon.

The difference? The sales revenue of a Walmart or eBay store is typically less than 10% of what businesses would generate on Amazon for that same amount of work.  That interesting informational nugget comes from James Thompson, a partner at the Buy Box Experts e-tailing consultancy.

(And for small retailers attempting to run their own e-commerce sites, the revenue stream is even lower.)

But even with Amazon’s ascendancy in the world of online commerce, its retail platform remains a frustration to small sellers due to its level of responsiveness to questions and concerns (low) and its sudden, sometimes inexplicable policy changes.

Consumer advocates would counter-argue that Amazon’s seller policies are focused in the right place:  looking out for the end-user customer. But others contend that Amazon’s actions aren’t even-handed, nor applied equally.

Take Amazon’s policies on dealing with product shipments and defects. When a seller’s defect order rate goes as high as 1%, Amazon deactivates the vendor’s account automatically.  To be reinstated, a seller has to go through an arduous vetting process, during which time Amazon holds all monies due to the seller until every order is shipped and received – even orders that are in dispute.

To make matters even more onerous, the customer service phone number of the seller disappears, making it next-to-impossible for the vendor to clear up any misunderstandings with an end-customer other than by going through the Amazon portal.

Here’s another example:  Without prior notification, last month Amazon instituted a new “Pay by Invoice” policy that allows corporate customers a pay period of 30 days.

While this is a great move from the customer’s point of view, most small businesses are used to being paid in two weeks.  The new invoice payment policy squeezes the resources of smaller sellers, which often operate under tighter cashflow conditions than larger retailers.

It is true that bigger brands make up an increasing share of volume in the world of Amazon sellers. Those brands bring in the most money, but small businesses round out the portfolio and remain an important component of realizing Amazon’s aims of becoming the big behemoth with an “always and everywhere” presence in the world of retail.

Considering everything, it would seem that Amazon and its sellers should recognize each other’s worth and how much they mean to each other. Amidst everything, there has to be a win-win position that can be reached to the benefit of everyone.

The closed world of open office environments.

If you ask company managers and CFOs if they prefer “open office” concepts over private offices, you may well get a different answer than if you ask the people who actually work in open office environments.

There are two attractive aspects about open office plans that surely warm the hearts of many business managers. One is the notion that an open office environment encourages more interaction and spontaneous collaboration among employees.

The other is that open office concepts don’t cost as much to build and maintain as do private offices.

So … let’s break this down a bit.

Speaking personally, I’ve visited numerous company headquarters and branch locations where open office plans are prevalent … but what I see and hear isn’t interaction. Instead, it’s more likely to be mounds of white noise with employees sitting at their desks focusing intently on their computer screens.

Any interaction that may be happening is closer to the hushed sounds of a reference library — or even the confessional zone in the back of a Roman Catholic or Anglican church — than it is to any kind of bright, casual conversation with ideation happening all over the place.

This can’t be what managers had in mind – even if they’re shaving 25% or more off of their facilities management budget.

Now we have some new evidence to support the anecdotal evidence. Researchers at the Harvard Business School studied two Fortune 500 companies that made the transition to an open office plan from one where workers had more privacy.  The firms agreed to allow themselves to be the subjects of before/after evaluation.

The research wasn’t done via a survey, which would likely be susceptible to respondent bias (a fear of being honest and saying something that goes against the common managerial POV). Instead, the actual worker behaviors were charted using “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones that were worn by the employees for several weeks before and after the office redesigns.

The badges worn by the participants included an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth® sensor and an accelerometer that, when combined with a microphone, could discern when two people had a face-to-face interaction (but without recording the actual words spoken).

The Harvard research also studied before/after data pertaining to the volume of e-mail and instant messenger use by the employees.

Even though other variables remaining the same in the before/after evaluation (the same employees … before/after study periods occurring during the same business cycle), the changes in behavior were startling:

  • Employees spent ~73% less time in face-to-face interactions
  • E-mail use rose by ~67%
  • Instant messenger use grew by ~75%

The research also looked at shifts in interactions between specific pairs of work colleagues, where it found a similar dropoff in face-to-face communications along with increased electronic correspondence (although not to the same degree as the overall research results showed).

Furthermore, the research determined that workers tended to interact with different groups of people online than they did in person, which opens up even more potential concerns about the reduction in collaboration that would be happening as a result of moving to the open office concept.

Speaking in a post-study interview, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein’s conclusion was that there’s “a natural human desire for privacy — and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it.”

In the case of preferred office configurations, people simply don’t like fishbowls. Deskside chats don’t happen, and other face-to-face interaction is severely limited as well.

In other words, open office plans don’t result in increased personal interaction, but they do create a more digital environment.  That seems like the polar opposite of what management wants.

Of course, to reduce a company’s facilities budget, an open office environment remains the preferred thing to do.  So maybe companies need to drop all of the pretense about “facilitating positive collaboration and spontaneous brainstorming.” Just tell employees what’s really behind shifting to an open office concept:  spending fewer dollars.

At least employees might appreciate the honesty rather than the obfuscation …

A detailed article summarizing the research, co-authored by Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, can be accessed here.

Grunts and groans in the e-mail sector.

Want to work as a drone for middling pay? Then a job in e-mail marketing may be right for you!

There’s an oft-repeated axiom that success in business is 20% inspiration and 80% perspiration.

If that’s the case, then the field of e-mail marketing is proving the rule – in spades.

Recently, e-mail service provider MessageGears surveyed workers in the business-to-consumer e-mail enterprise space. All survey respondents worked in companies that deploy 10 million or more e-mails per month.  More to the point, two thirds of the respondents worked in companies that send more than 50 million e-mails monthly.

So, we’re talking about companies that are on their game when it comes to the e-mail discipline – presumably aware of the latest operational and analytical tools to make their businesses as efficient as possible.

Here’s what MessageGears discovered in its survey:

  • More than 90% of respondents that have purely strategic roles in e-mail marketing are “very satisfied” with their jobs … and ~81% would again choose the e-mail discipline as a career.
  • More than two-thirds of respondents who are unhappy with their jobs spend 50% or more of their time on operational work tasks … and half of those would choose a different career if they were starting over.

Clearly, the creative and strategic parts of e-mail marketing are more popular than the operational aspects. Indeed, respondents rated the following job tasks the most fulfilling ones personally:

  • Designing customer-centric e-mails
  • Creating e-mail content
  • Devising new ways to engage with customers via e-mail communications

On the other hand, the lowest marks were recorded for these tasks:

  • E-mail testing
  • Analytics
  • Data segmenting

Unfortunately, it’s these latter types of tasks that take up the majority of daily job responsibilities for many workers in the e-mail sector: According to the survey results, nearly half of the workers spend more time on testing, analytics and data segmenting than they do on anything else.

MessageGears claims that there’s a direct link between the heavy proportion of operational tasks and the lack of creativity and strategic thinking in the field of e-mail.

Whether this linkage results in a loss of efficiency may be open to question … but what it does suggest is that working in e-mail isn’t the most personally fulfilling path for a marketing career – at least for most people.

More about the MessageGears survey results can be accessed here.