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.

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.

New Car Technologies and their Persistently Bullish Prospects

Let’s dip back a few years for a quick history lesson. It’s 2010, and various business prognosticators are confidently predicting that the number of electric cars sold in the United States in 2013 will be ~200,000 vehicles.

And in 2015, electric auto sales will reach ~280,000 units.

What really happened?

In 2013 total electric car sales in the United States were fewer than 97,000.  In 2015, the figure was higher – all of 119,000 units.

It’s worse than even these statistics show. The auto industry’s own expert predictions were off by miles.  In 2011, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn predicted that his company would have more than 1.5 million Renault-Nissan electric vehicles on the road.

That forecast turned out to be about 80% too high.

More recent sales forecasts for electric cars are much more realistic. As has become quite clear, many consumers aren’t particularly interested in shifting to a newer technology of automobile if they have to pay substantially more for the technology up-front – despite the promise of lower vehicle operating expenses over time.

Even more telling, a recent McKinsey survey found that of today’s electric car owners, only about half of respondents indicated that they would purchase one again. Ouch.

So, what we now have are projections that electric vehicles won’t reach 4% of the U.S. automotive market until 2023 at the earliest. That’s about a decade later than those first forecasts envisioned reaching that penetration level.

Is it all that surprising, actually? If we’re being honest, we have to acknowledge that the most lucrative markets for electric vehicles are in highly prosperous, population-dense urban areas with strict gasoline emissions standards – the very definition of a “limited market” (think San Francisco or Boston).

Thinking about the next technological advancement in this sector, the industry’s newest “bright shiny thing” is self-driving cars – also referred to as the classier-sounding “autonomous vehicle.” But it appears that this sector may be facing similar dynamics that made electric vehicles the “fizzled sizzle” they turned out to be.

Consider the challenges that autonomous vehicles face that threaten to dampen marketplace acceptance of these products – at least in the short- and medium-term:

  • The regulatory and legal ramifications of autonomous vehicles are even more daunting than those affecting electric cars. For starters, try assigning liability for car crashes.
  • Autonomous vehicles require sophisticated mapping and data analytics to operate properly. The United States is a big country. Put those two factors together and it’s easy to see what kind of a challenge it will be to get these vehicles on the road in any major way.
  • How about resistance from powerful groups that have a vested interest in the status quo? Of the ~3.5 million commercial truck drivers in the United States, I wonder how many are in favor of self-driving vehicles?

Not every new technology operates in a similar environment, and for this reason some new-fangled products don’t have such a long gestation and ramp-up period.  Take the smartphone, which took all of ten years to go from “what’s that?” to “who doesn’t own one?”

But there’s quite a difference, actually.  Smartphones were a sea change from what people typically considered a mobile phone, with oodles of added utility and capabilities that were never even part of the equation before.

By contrast, consumers know what it’s like to have a car, and even self-driving cars won’t be doing anything particularly “new.” Just doing it differently.

At this juncture, McKinsey is predicting that autonomous cars will reach ~15% of U.S. automobile sales by the year 2030.

Maybe that’s correct … maybe not. But my guess is, if McKinsey’s prediction turns out to be off, it’ll be because it was too robust.

Smartphones go mainstream with all age groups.

Today, behaviors across the board are far more “similar” than they are “different.”

Over the past few years, smartphones have clawed their way into becoming a pervasive presence among consumers in all age groups.

That’s one key takeaway message from Deloitte’s 2017 Mobile Consumer Survey covering U.S. adults.

According to the recently-released results from this year’s research, ~82% of American adults age 18 or older own a smartphone or have ready access to one. It’s a significant jump from the ~70% who reported the same thing just two years ago.

While smartphone penetration is highest among consumers age 18-44, the biggest increases in adoption are coming in older demographic categories.  To illustrate, ~67% of Deloitte survey respondents in the age 55-75 category own or have ready access to smartphones, which is big increase from the ~53% who reported so in 2015.

It represents an annual rate of around 8% for this age category.

The Deloitte research also found that three’s little if any difference in the behaviors of age groups in terms of how they interact with their smartphones. Daily smartphone usage is reported by 9 in 10 respondents regardless of the age bracket.

Similarly-consistent across all age groups is the frequency that users check their phones during any given day. For the typical consumer, it happens 47 times daily on average.  Fully 9 in 10 report looking at their phones within an hour of getting up, while 8 in 10 do the same just before going to sleep.

At other times during the day, the incidence of smartphone usage quite high in numerous circumstances, the survey research found:

  • ~92% of respondents use smartphones when out shopping
  • ~89% while watching TV
  • ~85% while talking to friends or family members
  • ~81% while eating at restaurants
  • ~78% while eating at home
  • ~54% during meetings at work

As for the “legacy” use of cellphones, a smaller percentage of respondent’s report using their smartphones for making voice calls. More than 90% use their smartphone to send and receive text messages, whereas a somewhat smaller ~86% make voice calls.

As for other smartphone activities, ~81% are sending and receiving e-mail messages via their smartphone, ~72% are accessing social networks on their smartphones at least sometimes during the week, and ~30% report making video calls via their smartphones – which is nearly double the incidence Deloitte found in its survey two years ago.

As for the respondents in the survey who use smartwatches, daily usage among the oldest age cohort is the highest of all: Three-quarters of respondents age 55-75 reported using their smartwatches daily, while daily usage for younger consumers was 60% or even a little below.  So, in this one particular category, older Americans are actually ahead of their younger counterparts in adoption and usage.

The Deloitte survey shows pretty definitively that it’s no longer very valid to segregate older and younger generations. While there may be some slight variations among younger vs. older consumers, the reality is that market behaviors are far more the same than they are different.  That’s the first time we’ve seen this dynamic playing out in the mobile communications segment.

Additional findings from the Deloitte research can be found in an executive summary available here.

Where Robots Are Getting Ready to Run the Show

The Brookings Institution has just published a fascinating map that tells us a good deal about what is happening with American manufacturing today.

Headlined “Where the Robots Are,” the map graphically illustrates that as of 2015, nearly one-third of America’s 233,000+ industrial robots are being put to use in just three states:

  • Michigan: ~12% of all industrial robots working in the United States
  • Ohio: ~9%
  • Indiana: ~8%

It isn’t surprising that these three states correlate with the historic heart of the automotive industry in America.

Not coincidentally, those same states also registered a massive lurch towards the political part of the candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election who spoke most vociferously about the loss of American manufacturing jobs.

The Brookings map, which plots industrial robot density per 1,000 workers, shows that robots are being used throughout the country, but that the Great Lakes Region is home to the highest density of them.

Toledo, OH has the honor of being the “Top 100” metro area with the highest distribution of industrial robots: nine per 1,000 workers.  To make it to the top of the list, Toledo’s robot volume jumped from around 700 units in 2010 to nearly 2,400 in 2015, representing an average increase of nearly 30% each year.

For the record, here are the Top 10 metropolitan markets among the 100 largest, ranked in terms of their industrial robot exposure.  They’re mid-continent markets all:

  • Toledo, OH: 9.0 industrial robots per 1,000 workers
  • Detroit, MI: 8.5
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 6.3
  • Louisville, KY: 5.1
  • Nashville, TN: 4.8
  • Youngstown-Warren, OH: 4.5
  • Jackson, MS: 4.3
  • Greenville, SC: 4.2
  • Ogden, UT: 4.2
  • Knoxville, TN: 3.7

In terms of where industrial robots are very low to practically non-existent within the largest American metropolitan markets, look to the coasts:

  • Ft. Myers, FL: 0.2 industrial robots per 1,000 workers
  • Honolulu, HI: 0.2
  • Las Vegas, NV: 0.2
  • Washington, DC: 0.3
  • Jacksonville, FL: 0.4
  • Miami, FL: 0.4
  • Richmond, VA: 0.4
  • New Orleans, LA: 0.5
  • New York, NY: 0.5
  • Orlando, FL: 0.5

When one consider that the automotive industry is the biggest user of industrial robots – the International Federation of Robotics estimates that the industry accounts for nearly 40% of all industrial robots in use worldwide – it’s obvious how the Midwest region could end up being the epicenter of robotic manufacturing activity in the United States.

It should come as no surprise, either, that investments in robots are continuing to grow. The Boston Consulting Group has concluded that a robot typically costs only about one-third as much to “employ” as a human worker who is doing the same job tasks.

In another decade or so, the cost disparity will likely be much greater.

On the other hand, two MIT economists maintain that the impact of industrial robots on the volume of available jobs isn’t nearly as dire as many people might think. According to Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo:

“Indicators of automation (non-robot IT investment) are positively correlated or neutral with regard to employment. So even if robots displace some jobs in a given commuting zone, other automation (which presumably dwarfs robot automation in the scale of investment) creates many more jobs.”

What do you think? Are Messrs. Acemoglu and Restrepo on point here – or are they off by miles?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

“I’m just so busy!” becomes the new social status signal.

In an era of almost constant “disruption” both socially and politically, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of people who devote their energies to thinking about the “larger implications.”

Author and MarComm über-thought leader Gord Hotchkiss is one of those individuals whose writings about the intersection of technology and human behavior are invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

His latest theory is no exception.

In a recent column published in MediaPost, Hotchkiss posits that the social status hierarchy of people may be moving away from “conspicuous consumption” and more towards the notion of “time” as the status symbol.

Hotchkiss writes:

“‘More stuff’ has been how we’ve determined social status for hundreds of years. In sociology, it’s called conspicuous consumption — a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen.  It’s a signaling strategy that evolved in humans over our recorded history. 

 The more stuff we had — and the less we had to do to get that stuff — the more status we had. Just over 100 years ago, Veblen called those who significantly fulfilled these criteria the Leisure Class.”

Gord Hotchkiss

Looking at how social dynamics and social status are playing out today — at least in North America — Hotchkiss paints picture that is quite different from before:

“A recent study seems to indicate that we now associate ‘busy-ness’ with status. Here, it’s time, not stuff, that is the scarce commodity.  Social status signaling is more apt to involve complaining about how we never go on a vacation than about our ‘summer on the continent.'”

Interestingly, the very same research methodology that uncovered this set of attitudes in the United States was conducted in Italy as well. And there, the findings were exactly the opposite.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that in Italy, every employee is entitled to at least 32 days of PTO per year, whereas in the United States the minimum number of legally required paid holidays is … zero.

Looked at from another perspective, perhaps today’s social status indicators in North America are merely the Protestant Work Ethic in action, but updated to the 21st century.

Either way, the residents of Italy probably see it as a heck of a way to live …

What’s up with personal assistant apps?

Apple Siri loses a chunk of users, but it still possesses the biggest share of the AI-powered personal assistant apps market.

With the entry of new personal assistant apps, it’s only logical that there would be a shift in market share between the established players and the upstarts.

That trend is underscored in statistics recently published by Verto Analytics which are based on behavioral data gleaned from ~20,000 U.S. consumers via passive metering of their digital devices.

According to Verto, the current share of usage among the seven top personal assistant apps breaks down as follows:

  • Apple Siri: 41MM monthly U.S. users (~44%)
  • Samsung S Voice: 23MM (~25%)
  • Google Text-To-Search: 20MM (~21%)
  • Google Home: 5MM (~5%)
  • Amazon Alexa: 3MM (~3%)
  • Google Allo: 1MM (~1%)
  • Microsoft Cortana: 1MM (~1%)

These stats show the degree to which the top three apps continue to dominate the U.S. market. However, they don’t tell the entire story.  A more interesting trend is what’s happening with the number of monthly users by app. In the case of Siri, its monthly user figure has dropped a full 15% in the past year – or about 7 million monthly users lower than in 2016.

Samsung, #2 on the list, also experienced a decline in monthly users – in its case a drop of 8%, or about 2 million fewer users compared to 2016.

Google Home also experienced a slide in subscribers, although #3 ranged Google Text-To-Search did grow.

The biggest growth trends in personal assistant apps were experienced by Alexa (up ~325%) and Cortana (up ~350%). Both apps were starting from a very low baseline, however, and today they still number only around 3 million and 1 million monthly users respectively.

Another interesting dynamic is the level of engagement each of these personal assistant apps generates. As it turns out, there is a direct correlation between overall user growth and levels of engagement, so it’s pretty clear where most of the “go-go” action is at the moment:  Alexa and Cortana.

Perhaps most significantly, the Verto report suggests that personal assistant apps are of more utility to users than search apps such as Google or Yelp. Approximately 45% of smartphones owned by U.S. adults contained a personal assistant app that was used at least once during the month of May 2017.  Compare that to the percent of smartphones that had a search app installed over the same period:  just 34%.

It goes to show that among personal assistant apps broadly, the market is quite robust even if it’s fragmenting rather than consolidating.