United Airlines’ four miscalculations — and the $200 million impact.

Just how many mistakes did United Airlines make in “re-accommodating” four of its booked passengers recently? Oh, let us count the ways …

Miscalculation #1

Despite some reports to the contrary, technically United Airlines wasn’t in an overbooking or oversold situation. The flight boarded full; then some crew assigned to a future flight from the destination city turned up suddenly.

The airline’s first mistake was failure by its managers or staff to correctly anticipate the crew that needed to travel on this flight.

 Miscalculation #2

Their second mistake was to implement an operating procedure which gives crew higher priority than paying customers.

Because all customers had already taken their seats on the airplane, and no more seats were available, this meant that the airline’s staff had to ask — or coerce — some seated customers to leave.

Miscalculation #3

United’s third mistake was management’s failure to empower the airline’s gate agents to offer higher compensation in order to entice customers to leave voluntarily.

This miscalculation guaranteed that the victims would be “paying customers” who had done nothing wrong, rather than the airline’s managers and staff who had made all the mistakes.

Miscalculation #4

When choosing its victims, everything else being equal apparently, United Airlines and its regional partners like United Express go after the lowest-paying customers first. That too is a miscalculation.

Let’s explore this a bit further. According to the latest published data I could find, on average around 40% of passengers on the typical flight are traveling using heavily-discounted tickets.  Most of those tickets are non-refundable, and prepaid.  They can be changed ahead of time, but only if the customer pays change fees which can be very costly.

This means:

  • If the passenger doesn’t change his or her booking early enough, and doesn’t show up for the flight, the airline keeps all the revenue – and has the possibility of re-selling the seat to a different passenger.
  • Otherwise, the airline keeps the original revenue, plus the change fee. For United, this amounted to $800 million of additional revenue in the year 2015 alone.

Phony Risk?

Airlines justify their overbooking and overselling tactics as a way of reducing the risk of revenue lost from no-shows. Published data indicates that approximately 15% of confirmed reservations are no-shows. Assuming that the airline bears the full risk of revenue lost from no-shows, overbooking mitigates that risk by allowing other passengers to claim and pay for seats that would otherwise fly empty.

Airlines typically overbook about 12% of their seats, counting on no-shows to match load-to-seats, or later cancellations to reduce bookings. (Failure to correctly anticipate the number of no-shows would also qualify as a mistake by the airline’s management or staff.)

All that being said, however, in most discounting situations there is no “risk” to reduce, because most customers who buy discounted tickets already bear all the financial risks from a failure to show up for flights. If passengers are unable to fly when originally planned, they must either pay steep change fees … or they forfeit the entire fare paid.

The Real Risk

In fact, the airlines’ biggest risk of revenue loss from no-shows arises from passengers paying first class, business class or full-fare economy.

These types of tickets account for approximately 25% of passengers and 50% of ticket revenues.  Yet those passengers typically incur few if any cancellation fees or penalties if or when they don’t show up.

When enterprises like United try to have it both ways – by putting themselves ahead of their customers and gaming the system to maximize revenues without incurring any apparent financial risks – is it any wonder the end result is ghastly spectacles like passengers being forcibly dragged off airplanes?

Scenes like that are the predictable consequences of greed overtaking sound business management and ethics. You don’t have to think too hard to come up with other examples of precisely the same thing — Wells Fargo’s “faux” bank account setups being another recent corporate black-eye.

I’m sure if United Airlines had it to do all over again, it would have cheerfully offered up to $10,000 per ticketed passenger to get its four flight crew members off to Louisville, rather than suffer more than a $200 million net loss in share value of its company stock over the past week.

But instead, United Airlines decided on a pennywise/pound-foolish approach.

How wonderful that turned out to be for everyone.

Downtown turnaround? In these places, yes.

Downtown Minneapolis (Photo: Dan Anderson)

For decades, “going downtown” meant something special – probably from its very first use as a term to describe the lower tip of Manhattan, which was then New York City’s heart of business, commercial and residential life.

Downtown was literally “where it was at” – jobs, shopping, cultural attractions and all.

But then, beginning in post-World War II America, many downtowns lost their luster, as people were drawn to the suburbs thanks to cheap land and easy means to traveling to and fro.

In some places, downtowns and the areas immediately adjoining them became places of high crime, industrial decay, shopworn appearances and various socio-economic pathologies.

Things hit rock bottom in the late 1970s, as personified by the Times Square area of New York City. But since then, many downtowns have slowly come back from those near-death experiences, spurred by new types of residents with new and different priorities.

Dan Cort, author of the book Downtown Turnaround, describes it this way:  “People – young ones especially – love historical buildings that reintroduce them to the past.  They want to live where they can walk out of the house, work out, go to a café, and still walk to work.”

There are a number of cities where the downtown areas have come back in the big way over the past several decades. Everyone knows which ones they are:  New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis …

But what about the latest success stories? Which downtowns are those?

Recently, Realtor.com analyzed the 200 largest cities in the United States to determine which ones have the made the biggest turnaround since 2012. To determine the biggest successes, it studied the following factors:

  • Downtown residential population growth
  • Growth in the number of restaurants, bars, grocery stores and food trucks per capita
  • Growth in the number of independent realtors per capita
  • Growth in the number of jobs per capita
  • Home price appreciation since 2012 (limited to cities where the 2012 median home price was $400,000 or lower)
  • Price premium of purchasing a home in the downtown district compared with the median home price of the whole city
  • Residential and commercial vacancy rates

Based on these criteria, Realtor.com’s list of the Top 10 cities where downtown is making a comeback are these:

  • #1 Pittsburgh, PA
  • #2 Indianapolis, IN
  • #3 Oakland, CA
  • #4 Detroit, MI
  • #5 Columbus, OH
  • #6 Austin, TX
  • #7 Los Angeles, CA
  • #8 Dallas, TX
  • #9 Chicago, IL
  • #10 Providence, RI

Some of these may surprise you. But it’s interesting to see some of the stats that are behind the rankings.  For instance, look at what’s happened to median home prices in some of these downtown districts since 2012:

  • Detroit: +150%
  • Oakland: +111%
  • Los Angeles: +63%
  • Pittsburgh: +31%

And residential population growth has been particularly strong here:

  • Pittsburgh: +32%
  • Austin: +25%
  • Dallas: +25%
  • Chicago: +21%

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if the downtown revitalization trend continues – and spreads to more large cities.

And what about America’s medium-sized cities, where downtown zones continue to struggle. If you’ve been to Midwestern cities like Kokomo, IN, Flint, MI or Lima, OH, those downtowns look particularly bleak.  Can the sort of revitalization we see in the major urban centers be replicated there?

I have my doubts … but what is your opinion? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

PR Practices: WOM Still Wins in the End

These days, there are more ways than ever to publicize a product or service so as to increase its popularity and its sales.

And yet … the type of thing most likely to convince someone to try a new product – or to change a brand – is a reference or endorsement from someone they know and trust.

Omnichannel marketing promotions firm YA conducted research in 2016 with ~1,000 American adults (age 18+) that quantifies what many have long suspected: ~85% of respondents reported that they are more likely to purchase a product or service if it is recommended by someone they know.

A similarly high percentage — 76% — reported that an endorsement from such a person would cause them to choose one brand over another.

Most important of all, ~38% of respondents reported that when researching product or services, a referral from a friend is the source of information they trust the most.  No other source comes close.

This means that online reviews, news reports and advertising – all of which have some impact – aren’t nearly as important as the opinions of friends, colleagues or family members.

… Even if those friends aren’t experts in the topic!

It boils down to this:  The level of trust between people has a greater bearing on purchase decisions because consumers value the opinion of people they know.

Likewise, the survey respondents exhibited a willingness to make referrals of products and services, with more than 90% reporting that they give referrals when they like a product. But a far lower percentage — ~22% — have actually participated in formal refer-a-friend programs.

This seems like it could be an opportunity for brands to create dedicated referral programs, wherein those who participate are rewarded for their involvement.

The key here is harnessing the referrers as “troops” in the campaign, so as to attract a larger share of referral business and where the opportunities are strongest — and tracking the results carefully, of course.

Where’s the Best Place to Live without a Car?

For Americans who live in the suburbs, exurbs or rural areas, being able to live without a car seems like a pipedream. But elsewhere, there are situations where it may actually make some sense.

They may be vastly different in nearly every other way, but small towns and large cities share one trait – being the places where it’s more possible to live without a car.

Of course, within the larger group of small towns and larger cities there can be big differences in relative car-free attractiveness depending on differing factors.

For instance, the small county seat where I live can be walked from one side of town to the other in under 15 minutes. This means that, even if there are places where a sidewalk would be nice to have, it’s theoretically possible to take care of grocery shopping and trips to the pharmacy or the cleaners or the hardware store on foot.

Visiting restaurants, schools, the post office and other government offices is also quite easy as well.

But even slightly bigger towns pose challenges because of distances that are much greater – and there’s usually little in the way of public transport to serve inhabitants who don’t possess cars.

At the other end of the scale, large cities are typically places where it’s possible to move around without the benefit of a car – but some urban areas are more “hospitable” than others based on factors ranging from the strength of the public transit system and neighborhood safety to the climate.

Recently, real estate brokerage firm Redfin took a look at large U.S. cities (those with over 300,000 population) to come up with its listing of the 10 cities it judged the most amenable for living without a car. Redfin compiled rankings to determine which cities have the better composite “walk scores,” “transit scores” and “bike scores.”

Here’s how the Redfin Top 10 list shakes out. Topping the list is San Francisco:

  • #1: San Francisco
  • #2: New York
  • #3: Boston
  • #4: Washington, DC
  • #5: Philadelphia
  • #6: Chicago
  • #7: Minneapolis
  • #8: Miami
  • #9: Seattle
  • #10: Oakland, CA

Even within the Top 10 there are differences, of course. This chart shows how these cities do relatively better (or worse) in the three categories scored:

Redfin has also analyzed trends in residential construction in urban areas, finding that including parking spaces within residential properties is something that’s beginning to diminish – thereby making the choice of opting out of automobile ownership a more important consideration than in the past.

What about your own experience? Do you know of a particular city or town that’s particularly good in accommodating residents who don’t own cars?  Or just the opposite?  Please share your observations with other readers.

Where the Millionaires Are

Look to the states won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Proportion of “millionaire households” by state (darker shades equals higher proportion of millionaires).

Over the past few years, we’ve heard a good deal about income inequality in the United States. One persistent narrative is that the wealthiest and highest-income households continue to do well – and indeed are improving their relative standing – while many other families struggle financially.

The most recent statistical reporting seems to bears this out.

According to the annual Wealth & Affluent Monitor released by research and insights firm Phoenix Marketing International, the total tally of U.S. millionaire households is up more than 800,000 over the past years.

And if we go back to 2006, before the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, the number of millionaire households has increased by ~1.3 million since that time.

[For purposes of the Phoenix report, “millionaire households” are defined as those that have $1 million or more in investable assets. Collectively, these households possess approximately $20 billion in liquid wealth, which is nearly 60% of the entire liquid wealth in America.]

Even with a growing tally, so-called “millionaire households” still represent around 5% of all U.S. households, or approximately 6.8 million in total. That percentage is nearly flat (up only slightly to 5.1% from 4.8% in 2006).

Tellingly, there is a direct correlation between the states with the largest proportion of millionaire households and how those states voted in the most recent presidential election. Every one of the top millionaire states is located on the east or west coasts – and all but one of them was won by Hillary Clinton:

  • #1  Maryland
  • #2  Connecticut
  • #3  New Jersey
  • #4  Hawaii
  • #5  Alaska
  • #6  Massachusetts
  • #7  New Hampshire
  • #8  Virginia
  • #9  DC
  • #10  Delaware

Looking at the geographic makeup of the states with the highest share of millionaires helps explain how “elitist” political arguments had a degree resonance in the 2016 campaign that may have surprised some observers.

Nearly half of the jurisdictions Hillary Clinton won are part of the “Top 10” millionaire grouping, whereas just one of Donald Trump’s states can be found there.

But it’s when we look at the tiers below the “millionaire households” category that things come into even greater focus. The Phoenix report shows that “near-affluent” households in the United States – the approximately 14 million households having investable assets ranging from $100,000 to $250,000 – actually saw their total investable assets decline in the past year.

“Affluent” households, which occupy the space in between the “near-affluents” and the “millionaires,” have been essentially treading water. So it’s quite clear that things are not only stratified, but also aren’t improving, either.

The reality is that the concentration of wealth continues to deepen, as the Top 1% wealthiest U.S. households possess nearly one quarter of the total liquid wealth.

In stark contrast, the ~70% of non-affluent households own less than 10% of the country’s liquid wealth.

Simply put, the past decade hasn’t been kind to the majority of Americans’ family finances. In my view, that dynamic alone explains more of 2016’s political repercussions than any other single factor.  It’s hardly monolithic, but often “elitism” and “status quo” go hand-in-hand. In 2016 they were lashed together; one candidate was perceived as both “elitist” and “status quo,” and the result was almost preordained.

The most recent Wealth & Affluent Monitor from Phoenix Marketing International can be downloaded here.

Cross-Currents in the Minimum Wage Debate

usmap-minimum-wages-2017This past November, there were increased minimum wage measures on the ballet in four states – Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington. They were approved by voters in every instance.

But are views about the minimum wage actually that universally positive?

A survey of ~1,500 U.S. consumers conducted by Cincinnati-based customer loyalty research firm Colloquy around the same time as the election reveals some contradictory data.

Currently, the federal minimum wage rate is set a $7.25 per hour. The Colloquy research asked respondents for their views in a world where the minimum wage would $15 per hour — a figure which is at the upper limit of where a number of cities and counties are now pegging their local minimum wage rates.

The survey asked consumers if they’d expect to receive better customer service and have a better overall customer experience if the minimum wage were raised to $15 per hour.

Nearly 60% of the respondents felt that they’d be justified in expecting to receive better service and a better overall experience if the minimum wage were raised to that level.  On the other hand, nearly 70% believed that they wouldn’t actually receive better service.

The results show pretty clearly that consumers don’t see a direct connection between workers receiving a substantially increased minimum wage and improvements in the quality of service those workers would provide to their consumers.

Men feel even less this way than women: More than 70% of men said they wouldn’t expect to receive better service, versus around 65% of women.

Younger consumers in the 25-34 age group, who could well be among the workers more likely to benefit from an increased minimum wage, are just as likely to expect little or no improvement in service quality. Nearly 70% responded as such to the Colloquy survey.

One concern some respondents had was the possibility that a dramatic rise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour could lead retailers to add more automation, resulting in an even less satisfying overall experience. (For men, it was ~44% who feel that way, while for women it was ~33%.)

Along those lines, we’re seeing that for some stores, labor-saving alternatives such as installing self-service checkout lanes have negative ramifications to such a degree that any labor savings are more than offset by incidences of merchandise “leaving the store” without having been paid for properly.

Significant numbers of consumers aren’t particularly thrilled with the “forced march” to self-serve checkout lines at some retail outlets, either.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of all in the Colloquy research was that only a minority of the survey respondents were actually in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. In stark contrast to the state ballot measures which were supported by clear majorities of voters, the survey found that just ~38% of the respondents were in favor.

The discrepancy is likely due to several factors. Most significantly, the November ballot measures were not stipulating such a dramatic monetary increase, but rather minimum wage rates that would increase to only $12 or $13 – and only by the year 2020 rather than immediately.

That, coupled with concerns about automation and little expectation of improved service quality, and it means that this issue isn’t quite as “black-and-white” as some might presume.

A Generational Shift within the American Workforce

bmI’ve blogged before about the cultural differences between older and younger Americans in the workforce. Some observers consider the differences to be of historic significance compared to previous eras, due to the confluence of various “macro” forces driving change at an extraordinary pace.

And somewhere along the way when few were looking, the millennial generation has now become the largest cohort in the American workforce.

And it isn’t even a close call: As of this year, millennials make up nearly 45% of all American workers, whereas baby boomer generation now comprises just over a quarter of the workforce.

According to a new report by management training and consulting firm RainmakerThinking titled The Great Generational Shift, there are actually seven groups of people currently in the workplace at this moment in time:

  • Pre-Baby Boomers (born before 1946): ~1% of the American workforce
  • Baby Boomers first wave (born 1946-1954): ~11%
  • Baby Boomers second wave (born 1955-1964): ~16%
  • GenXers (born 1965-1977): ~27%
  • Millennials first wave (born 1978-1989): ~27%
  • Millennials second wave (born 1990-2000): ~17%
  • Post-Millennials (born after 2000): ~1%

roowPersonally, I don’t know anyone born before 1946 who is still in the workforce, but there are undoubtedly a few of them — one out of every 100, to be precise.

But the older members of the Baby Boomer generation are fast cycling out of the workforce as well, with more than 10,000 of them turning 70 years old every day.

By the year 2020, the “first wave” Boomers are expected to be only around 6% of the workforce.  Meanwhile, Millennials are on track to represent more than 50% of the workforce by 2020.

Now, that makes some of us feel old!

The Great Generational Shift report can be downloaded here.