Monday Update – November 25, 2019

Small Communities Beware…
Cracker Jacks Air Service Development

Okay, Cue the Music… Softly, Gently…

… there ain’t no Coupe de Ville, hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jacks Box…”

– Entertainer Meat Loaf, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad, 1978

(Millennials may need to google this. Some probably think “Coupe de Ville” is a seafood entrée at a French restaurant. As for the box thing, they’re completely stumped.)

Hint: it’s a reference to a candy that came with a little toy inside. Popular in the 1940s and  1950s and still sold today. A big marketing draw – kids eagerly gobbling the stuff down, all excited to find the reward at the bottom.

Let’s move into today.

This line is sagely advice and a cautionary comment for any small community in regard to exploring air service access for the future.

It’s an increasingly tough job to be a civic leader involved in trying to assure that their small or rural community has access in the future to the global air transportation system.

It takes hard and realistic analysis and understanding of air transportation realities to make determinations regarding assuring air access to a given region, even when passenger service at the local airport is economically not possible. Recognizing this, and crafting alternative access plans, is a very challenging and politically-delicate undertaking.

For these civic leaders, it often takes great effort to deal with otherwise well-meaning local entities that often pop up, demanding “flights” at the local airport, with very little understanding of the economic realities.

Enter The Cracker Jacks Approach. But unfortunately, sometimes these folks are fair prey to get hooked into air service development (ASD) programs that are every bit as ridiculous from the gitgo as trying to find an automobile at the bottom of a 4″x 8″ box of gooey caramel popcorn.

The starting point in the Cracker Jacks air service development approach is to convince the client  (or, more commonly, make sure they are not disabused of) the fantasy that there’s always an air service prize at the bottom of the box. Just keep digging.

The story line is enticing. That Coupe de Ville of air service might really be there, even if the community is very small, has low regional population, and might have another, larger airport in driving range that has service access the local airport couldn’t get within a gust of propwash in matching.

Not to worry. All that’s needed is to have faith and a big budget. Just shell out for a ponderous “true market study” and, also maybe, a geographic-focused “leakage analysis.” Then, maybe a monthly fee to “keep in contact” with “target airlines” which in many cases don’t exist.

Then, be patient, because fantastic new demand for air service might be discovered, even though every set of metrics, every fleet and strategic trend in the airline industry, not to mention ethical common sense, disproves this voodoo right from the start.

The key to Cracker Jacks ASD is to keep the client completely in the dark regarding any scintilla of airline industry realities, and to completely ignore current consumer alternatives. As long as that curtain of intellectual darkness can be maintained within the community, it’s boom time for purveyors of Cracker Jacks ASD projects.

They can go on for years at some small airports, with, of course, no results beyond dumping more money into revised studies and increasingly desperate suggestions for “air service.”

Avoiding Getting Mired In The ASD Popcorn. It’s understandable that community and civic leaders can get taken down this path. They aren’t expert in the dynamics and economic realities of 21st century airline realities. A glowing promise to search out and “lure” air service is naturally attractive.

But to people who are aware and versed in airline industry trends, fleets, economics and strategies, these ASD programs have enough red flags to furnish Moscow on Mayday.

A sure red flag is when – conveniently – there’s no up-front mention or identification of just what the desired flights are supposed to accomplish, or what specifically the need is, beyond just “air service” – as if it’s as generic as having running water. Wave that flag.

Another red flag is when the program is to supposedly “lure” flights just to a certain city, again with no mention of what airline. See, the story goes, that type of information can’t be “discovered” without a deep analytical dive into the popcorn box of jive data, and then spoon-fed to the community.

The truth is that for just about any – any – proposed route, the airline target is as obvious as a double-meat Whopper at a vegan wedding. Or, just as non-obvious, in cases were there’s no airline that would have any earthly interest.

More red flags pop up when the program is engineered to avoid actually comparing the proposed service in regard to consumer convenience with that alternatively available at other airport gateways in the region. One flapping red banner is when there’s an online survey, asking profound questions like “will you like to use the local airport?” – without any specifics. Naturally the returns are a landslide in favor.

Okay, use it for what? Based on how may flights per day? At what comparative fares? At what levels of connectivity? None of that detail is typically provided, but, take it to the bank, the “results” from these questionnaires are always touted as proof positive that air service will have ‘em lining up at the ticket counter.

Here’s a consumer reality: A couple of flights a day to connect someplace are not usually competitive with an hour drive – or often even more – to access an array of 25, 45, or 85 flights a day at another airport that also offers a wide range of nonstops to key destinations. And in any case, the failure to convincingly address this issue as a key part of the 50-page “market study” has P.T. Barnum smiling broadly from his grave.

Air travel is about saving time – and shock of shocks – even with that drive to a larger airport, the wider range of flights and destinations can often be a significantly shorter travel time than trying to adjust one’s schedule to accommodate the service that the local airport might be able to attract.

It’s often the coup de grace – not the Coupe de Ville – for consumer use of the local facility.

Assuring Access In The New Global Economy. The most important point in developing an air service access program is that it matches the future economic trajectories of the US economy, consumer needs, changes in future communication channels, and a range of other evolving dynamics.

In the future “air service access” will mean a lot more than just passengers and baggage.

As was pointed out at sessions and Workshops at the 24th International Aviation Forecast Summit in Las Vegas, there are whole new logistical and transportation systems now developing that will change to value equation of all airports – but particularly those in rural and metro-peripheral areas of the nation.

With robot technology, China and Vietnam and Malaysia and places like that no longer will have a manufacturing advantage. UAS technology in many applications has the potential of actually being more cost-effective in transporting goods than by over-the-road. Distribution systems are shifting toward just-in-time and just-in-case.

No, scheduled passenger service at every rural community isn’t economically possible – or even consumer-compatible.

But there’s a whole new set of economic roles for America’s 3,500+ airports where scheduled passenger flights are about as likely as finding that Cadillac in a snack box.