Airlines Discover the Fine Art of No-Frills Flying

To appeal to short-haul fliers, some companies are working hard to streamline their services.
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If you're a business traveler who frequently flies trips of 500 miles or fewer, you're what the airlines dispassionately refer to as a short-haul passenger. On journeys of about an hour, such passengers can be treated like packages as they're quickly herded onto planes, flown to their destinations with little fanfare or attention and then quickly unloaded.

And isn't it interesting that marketing-sensitive, image-conscious airline executives use the word "haul" to refer to passengers? After all, haul seems more appropriate to discussions about cargo and air freight.

But give the airlines some credit. According to what's being billed as the first major study of short-haul fliers -- conducted for the

United Shuttle

unit of

UAL

(UAL) - Get Report

by the Chicago-based market research firm

Cambridge Group

-- this sort of no-nonsense treatment is exactly what these passengers want.

People who fly United Shuttle and a number of other short-haul carriers -- including

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Report

,

Alaska Airlines

(ALK) - Get Report

,

Delta Express

(DAL) - Get Report

,

US Airways

(U)

,

Northwest Airlines

(NWAC)

and others -- told surveyors that getting on and off an airplane is far more important than the service and amenities offered on board. As United Shuttle put it, in announcing the study's findings, "short-haul travelers' hearts and minds are won at the airport, not in the air."

"We knew short-haul business travelers had different needs than travelers on our longer flights,'' says United Shuttle president Amos Kazzaz. "The frequent short-haul traveler wants to get from the airport terminal curb to their seat as quickly and hassle-free as possible. Once on board, they expect an on-time flight, and to be able to exit the plane and airport quickly and efficiently.'' It's that simple.

Major airlines like United, Delta Air Lines and US Airways have formed offshoot carriers designed to handle short-haul passengers. United Shuttle, which has 494 daily flights in 22 mostly western cities, says it has taken many steps to make airport check-in, boarding, deplaning and baggage retrieval as hassle-free as possible. "The $30 million renovation of Terminal 8 at Los Angeles International Airport puts in practice the key customer-driven initiatives that were identified in the Cambridge study,'' says Kazzaz.

Over the next year United Shuttle will continue to invest in new technology and products such as "The Word," a gate-area message display board that will give customers continuously updated information on flight and seat status. United Shuttle already is operating mobile "Chariots," supplementary wireless-linked service desks on wheels that are taken to areas of an airport where they're needed.

US Airways spokesman David Castelveter says the airline started

Metro Jet

-- which has 214 daily departures to 22 cities using 118-seat Boeing 737s -- just for the short-haul market. "Customers have told us if we give them low fares, on-time flights and some ease in boarding and leaving an airplane, they don't need or want all the amenities."

To that end, there are no meals -- only limited beverage service -- on Metro Jet flights. That means a passenger might get a cookie and a soft drink on a flight from Boston to Florida.

Eliminating services allows the airline not only to keep ticket prices down, but also helps Metro Jet achieve a goal of a 25-minute turnaround from a plane's landing to its takeoff for a new destination. "We don't have to replenish a full beverage cart, and we don't have to bring meals on the plane, so we aren't on the ground as long," explains Castelveter.

Metro Jet also boards passengers three rows at a time to cut down on the logjam that can be created when many passengers are trying to store items in overhead bins at once.

With its nearly two-year-old Delta Express, Delta Air Lines concentrates on easier connections to attract business from short-haul fliers. "We created business express so our passengers could bypass on our main hubs on certain routes," says Delta spokesman Travel O'Donnal. That means a Delta Express passenger could fly straight from Orlando to Nashville, for example, without stopping at the airline's main -- and always busy -- Atlanta hub, the connecting location for a regular commercial Delta flight between those two cities.

Like US Airways' Metro Jet, Delta Express has just one business class on all flights. It operates 168 daily flights to 22 cities, many of which have little or no service from commercial airliners -- places like Allentown, Pa., Albany, N.Y., East Islip, N.Y. and Rochester, N.Y. But it also serves major cities like Boston, Indianapolis and Orlando.

To help keep passengers moving, Delta Express has its own ticket counters, separate from the Delta Air Lines counters, and in some cases, separate concourses.

Dallas-based Southwest, already recognized for its low fares, good service and no-frills flights, tries to attract short-haul fliers with a variation of the frequent-flier programs that such travelers love. In addition to a traditional program rewarding passengers for the number of miles flown, Southwest has a program based on the number of trips taken on the airline. "That really benefits the short-haul passenger," says Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe Connelly, "because they take a lot of trips, but they don't build up mileage because they don't take the long-haul, coast-to-coast trips."

Ultimately, the Cambridge study found that although most short-haul carriers perform well on one or two features, no one measures up to all passengers' expectations. In particular, business travelers in the study said they're in more of a "panic mode" when on short-haul trips; they have to be more efficient on day trips and need their airline of choice to be more efficient as well; they typically face a hectic, tight schedule, so there's no room for error; and they feel too much of their travel time is spent waiting in lines and confirming flights. In some cases, they spend as much time -- or more -- waiting in lines on the ground as they do flying to their destination.

So although the airlines that are trying to cater to short-haul travelers are on the right track, they have more work to do to make the skies -- and the ground -- just a little friendlier.

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. At time of publication, he had no position in the stocks mentioned, although positions can change at any time. Crowley can be reached at

crowleys@cinci.infi.net.