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Esther Dyson Headshot

Release 0.9: Flying - It's Not About A to B Anymore

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Today's piece in the New York Times about JetBlue and the planes stalled for hours on the tarmac resonates strongly with me. What could David Neeleman (the CEO of JetBlue) have been thinking? You can't legislate against this kind of (unintentional) stupidity, except perhaps by requiring each airline CEO's mother to fly once a week and to send a report back to her child.

First of all, I'm a frequent traveler. (I once spent the night on the floor of Moscow's Sheremetevo Airport. Long story, long ago.)

Second, I'm planning a workshop called Flight School coming up in June (June 20 to 22 in Aspen), and I have been searching for a theme. This post is (candidly) partly a promotion, but it's also an explanation of why Flight School is necessary and how I came to his year's theme of the customer experience: The people offering air travel - whether for fun or business, point to point or adventures in space - need to understand that they are moving people, not packages.

Over the next few months, as I continue to travel and plan the workshop, I'll be blogging more about this topic - especially my trip in April (I just signed up) to watch Charles Simonyi get launched into space from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

Back story

For the first two Flight Schools, subject matter was enough: air taxis, very light jets and commercial space travel in 2005; air taxis alone - "visible demand" - in 2006. (See next post, about air taxis and Aspen more specifically.)

But now to the present: What's new this year? Rocket-makers continue to make progress designing rockets. The very light jets are getting certified and will shortly be rolled out into service by the air-taxi companies, a little later than hoped but not much later than expected. Where's the news? What can we do for an encore?

Over the past couple of weeks, I've picked up the following threads: The usual moaning and groaning about service, on several occasions from people who fly in first and are relatively sheltered. A meeting with Rich Pournelle of XCOR, a company in which I have an investment. It makes rockets, and one of its markets will be (initially) near-space tourists - people who will pay on the order of $100,000 for a 40-minute ride to the edges of the atmosphere 62 miles above the earth. He in turn was talking to Jane Reifert of Incredible Adventures (one of the few women in this field), who says that her fastest-growing customer segment is single women over 40. You have to be relatively wealthy (and presumably have had time to earn it), but the men often have dependents and can't get life insurance (even if their partners would let them go). The single women don't have that problem, and they're ready to have fun.

Rich and I also talked about the flights themselves: What will make it a memorable experience? How can you extend the 40 minutes with group training (read "community building") beforehand and helping the passengers to tell their friends (read "viral marketing") afterwards?

My own trip

As I mentioned, I'll be watching Charles Simonyi head for the International Space Station from Baikonur in Kazakhstan in April, and I tried to persuade a couple of friends to join me before yesterday's sign-up deadline. (The launch and the tour are operated by Space Adventures, in which I also have an investment; yes, there's a theme here for sure!)

The trip should be fun, but half the pleasure will - I hope - be the company of other space nuts. I'll be interested to see how good Space Adventures is at getting us to mingle; there are welcome cocktail parties, a Moscow tour; it's not all sitting around in a chilly desert waiting for blast-off. At the same time, these are busy, active people, far from retired; they'd rather pay $15,000 for an intense, four-day experience than $10,000 for a two-week cruise. (For his part, Simonyi is paying on the order of $25 million, plus three and a half months of medical assessment and training. As a Hungarian, he's ahead in that he already speaks some Russian.)

The planes

Trying to get a few key speakers confirmed, I called up my longtime friend Vern Raburn, the CEO of Eclipse Aviation (in which I do not have an investment, though Bill Gates and Paul Allen do). His new airplane, the Eclipse 500, should be to air taxis carrying people what the Dassault Falcon 20 was to overnight packages. FedEx started its business way back in 1973 with a fleet of 14 Falcons; DayJet will start operations (a few months late) with 19 Eclipse 500s sometime in the second quarter - just before Flight School, I hope.

Eclipse shipped its first jet to a customer just before the New Year; Raburn hopes to ship 500 by this year-end. For my part, I got to ride in one (labeled "experimental") last June, at Flight School 2006. It felt nice, comfortable...and not at all amazing. Which I think is the point: It's supposed to feel natural, not scary and edgy (not if you want the regular business traveler), but not cramped, either.

Oddly, that's the same feeling I had when I flew weightless, courtesy of Zero-G. (I invested, flew once, and liked it so much I invested some more!) It didn't feel amazing: It just felt so natural to be able to jump and push off a floor or wall, to twirl around in air the way I do in water. But when we landed, it felt so constraining not to be able to spring off the ground. Once you've done it once, you miss it and want to do it again.

Don't enhance it; shorten it!

And so last weekend I had the epiphany: I happened to meet Courtney Nichols, the COO of Verified Identity, the company that operates the FlyClear "registered traveler" program, founded by Steve Brill of Court TV and American Lawyer fame. FlyClear is controversial: To some people, it's a way for rich folks to get around the rules. To others, it's an implicit endorsement of a police state. But to its customers, it's time in a card and an antidote to the frustrations of the TSA: For $80 a year, they can save hours of pointless queuing.

FlyClear's customers are the most fanatic supporters any merchant could hope for, says Nichols: "When TSA delayed the national roll-out of the program last September, we decided to let customers speak for themselves, providing the publicly available address for the Registered Traveler program office. Over 15 percent of our [prospective] user base responded within 24 hours. They wrote to both TSA AND their congressmen/women. Our user base is very busy folks who don't usually bother to write these sorts of emails. The campaign helped dramatically accelerate the launch."

This echoes what Scott Cook says about Intuit, the accounting package: "People don't want to enrich their bookkeeping experience; they want to shorten it." Millions of users later, there's another such offering. (Now if they could only figure out something like that for the dentist's office.)

And in conclusion....

So now, safely in Aspen (I flew out on Thursday, beating a dayfull of canceled flights on Friday), where I'm running a seminar about the Internet as well as checking out the Flight School venues, I'm thinking about how the aviation market is changing. Whether leisure or functional travel, people are eager for something new and pleasant. They don't have much time, so they want to increase the pleasure/minimize the pain, and do it all more quickly.

It's not an insight that comes naturally to many of the people in space and aviation, who are too busy advertising price, engineering reliability and optimizing assets. But it's going to be key to their success long-term. Which is why we need a workshop about it. Air and space: It's about the customer experience.