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Flight Of The Homogeneous —
Is There Room For Sameness Anymore?

The Pundit is often asked to speak before different commodity groups. Very often we find that the focus of these groups is promoting their produce item based on nutritional facts about the item. Yet in marketing it is often the case that the overt features being marketed are less important than the latent truth those features represent.

Flying a new airline focused on high-end service made us contemplate what the airline is really selling, and it made us wonder if the trade doesn’t need to look at its marketing efforts in the same way.

Many Airlines in America have scaled back their domestic operations and are looking to expand their routes overseas. It is easy to see why. In the U.S., if an airline has a profitable route it can count on a gaggle of competitors — both traditional “hub and spoke” carriers, such as Delta, American and United, and the upstart point-to-point carriers — especially Southwest, but also JetBlue, Airtrans and others.

In contrast, most routes to other countries are still controlled by treaty and thus new entrants face a difficult task to get the rights to fly. This translates into much less competition on most foreign routes and thus higher prices and profitability.

British Airways has the only non-stops between Houston and London, so they can and do charge generously — especially for business and first class seats. Vacationers traveling coach are probably quick to book a domestic airline that changes planes, but business travelers — where time is money — hate the idea.

In any case, the Pundit budget didn’t allow for British Air’s hefty tariff, and with the need to get a lot of work done we loathed the idea of flying the trip in coach, so we decided to try something new.

We grabbed a Continental flight to JFK from Houston and switched over to EOS airlines. Eos is the Greek God of the dawn. The name was selected because of the company believes — or is the proper word hopes — that it represents the dawn of a new age in aviation.

What EOS does is take a 757 and proceeds to rip out all the seats. Normally a 757 seats about 222 people. EOS equips the whole plane with just 48 seats.

They advertise it as a business class service, but that is because most businesses will only pay for their employees to fly business, not first class. In fact, the seats and service are designed to approximate a good first class service.

It is an interesting concept. Many airlines have dropped first class all together and the point-to-point carriers never offered it in the first place.

Theoretically one could imagine a bifurcation of air service — with coach and business/first class literally flying different planes.

The EOS concept offers other benefits — fewer passengers mean few lines for luggage, for boarding, for immigration — and in that sense, the EOS experience apes that of a private jet.

Then there is the subject that Americans are always uncomfortable with — social class.

Looking around the airport, we saw plenty of people dressed for transcontinental flights in outfits the Pundit wouldn’t wear to the supermarket much less on an airplane.

Blame the Momma Pundit. We remember, as a boy, taking the Pan Am service from JFK to San Juan. Pan Am had built the ”Terminal of Tomorrow” there, and Momma Pundit dressed the children to fly. Poppa Pundit wore a suit, Momma Pundit a dress and we kids were all in our Sunday best.

The world is more casual now. Styles change. Today people wear expensive jeans to dress up, women might wear nice pants rather than a dress but, still, we have gone quite far from the 1950s, when The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit symbolized the conformity of The Organization Man.

Many would argue, perhaps correctly, that the conformity of that age was somewhat stifling and that a world in which people are not so worried about how others will perceive them and, consequently, dress for personal comfort rather than to satisfy their fellow passengers is a better one.

Yet that doesn’t mean nothing has been lost in this transition.

When you dressed up to go on an airplane — or for that matter to the shopping center — it was expressing a notion that you aren’t the center of the world. That other people matter and must be shown some respect.

Perhaps having to stare at a guy’s feet in his flip-flops or his armpit hair in his tank-top is not such an imposition. But respect for others is a habit, and if one doesn’t practice it on small things, one is unlikely to practice it on large things.

So EOS — and the half dozen airlines now doing the same thing — can be seen as a sociological phenomenon in which people with particular social mores try and separate themselves from dealing with those who behave differently.

The EOS flight we were on was notable for its conformity. Predominantly male, a couple of wives, one girlfriend, a few businesswoman and one guy traveling with his ‘niece’, who we are pretty sure was a niece in the sense that Julia Roberts was Richard Gere’s niece in Pretty Woman. Mostly there were business people. You could see the young and wiry London investment bankers working on their spread sheets, others filling out expense reports, some reading a novel or a newspaper. Many were pros at flying the route, leaping into the flat bed seats anxious to get themselves asleep so they could hit the ground running in London when they arrived at 7:30 AM.

You catch the occasional Australian freethinker — forgiven his deviation from the norm by his ready smile and quit wit. But most were wearing the uniform of the 21st century upscale business person — slacks or jeans, collared shirt, most had a blazer.

So if EOS offered comfortable flatbed seats across the Pond, it also offered a chance to be with people pretty much like oneself.

First and business class on conventional airlines try to do that as well. That is why your chance of an upgrade are better if you show up nicely dressed and speak politely to the agent.

But the separation is less complete than in the case of an airline such as EOS.

Besides, it is also part of the same long-forgotten ethos that made people dress to fly, which is part of respecting others by not flaunting one’s status. Being called on to board first, sometimes having coach passengers march through first class on their way to coach, is somewhat discomforting. Inadvertently one finds oneself turned into a showboat.

The success of an airline such as Southwest or JetBlue depends crucially on the ability to attract more affluent flyers. In Southwest’s case, it is a kind of western fun and in JetBlue’s case a kind of New York cool. These more affluent flyers make the customer base acceptable and allow the airlines to be an acceptable alternative.

If you want to know the root of many of Wal-Mart’s problems, you can find it in an inability to execute at retail as it has moved its stores out of a small town base. In a small town, Wal-Mart is likely to get the patronage of the richest man in town and be an acceptable place to work for every retired person looking to pick up cash or every kid looking for an after-school job. The customer and employee base may be from wildly varying income households, but the rural ethos of what kind of behavior is acceptable will subsume all.

As Wal-Mart moved into more urban and inner suburban areas, it drew employees from specific sub-cultures, employees that didn’t necessarily share the same values that Wal-Mart’s rural workers did. And Wal-Mart never really developed a way to deal with that divergence of values and the fact that in these heterogeneous areas, a consumer can look at the employees, look at the other customers and know, instantly, that this store is not for me.

Perhaps there is a marketing lesson for the perishables trade in this: It is not always the obvious that is the real selling point, and the obvious EOS selling point is fast lines, flat-bed seats and a nice meal service. But the undertext is a chance to operate in a world with people just like yourself.

Whether the existence of such an opportunity will, in the end, make for more peace and pleasure by allowing everyone to be with people just like themselves, or whether the ability to isolate oneself from different perspectives and ways of living will lead to an alienation from one another with disastrous consequences for democracy, is still to be seen.

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