Archive for January, 2008

SkyBus Business Model Asks Too Much Of Customers

Aren’t those automated reminders great? A gentle nudge to check-in for my upcoming flight to Bellingham, WA. I was scrambling to wrap up my Midwest Christmas and travel to visit more family, and departure was a little under 8 hours away. That might have explained why I missed an unassuming email that arrived 5 hours prior:

“We’re sorry, your flight – Wednesday, December 26 – has been cancelled. Would you like to choose a different flight – no charge, or request a refund?”

In the past, this kind of note indicated a 10-minute adjustment in departure time – a non-event. I’ve flown SkyBus to Bellingham (BLI)  since it’s first flight. At 4.5 hours direct to the Pacific Northwest from Columbus, Ohio, I have saved SO much time compared to any other route to Vancouver, BC. My bags have never been lost. On occasion, I’ve flown for $10 – 30 per leg. SkyBus was my hero. As an aside, I was CRUSHED to hear service to BLI would end January 5, 2008 because it was unprofitable – I even planned to send the friendly, overworked team at SkyBus BLI a thank-you note. I felt a strange sense of pride that I had been on the first flight to BLI, and I would be aboard the last scheduled flight out. Did you know that when a new airline begins service at an airport, the fire trucks traditionally ‘baptize’ the first flight with a water cannon arch as it taxis? It’s really something to be part of. I was a raving fan.

NoSkyBus2But this was different. The delay was until the following Sunday – 5 (five) days!

This is NOT cool. And I soon find I’m not alone. I quickly rescheduled on my old faithful, Southwest Airlines, scrambled for a rental car at SeaTac, and but for 4 hours lost to a longer commute and net $50, I was back on plan. SkyBus received a refund request, and off to the airport I go…

…where I meet up with families on ski trips and other holiday travel trying to piece together itineraries, and grappling with radical, last-minute budget-busting fee increases because SkyBus has no ticket reciprocity agreements. One family of 5 WAS flying for $30 per seat. Now, on Southwest last-minute, plus a shuttle to Bellingham to pick up the one remaining SUV for rent in the area, I’d guess their bill jumped almost $1700 overnight. In their case, they missed the cancel notification and only discovered the bad news at the airport. Ouch.

Some business insights:

  1. SkyBus was on a great track to building a loyal customer base, excited to promote the new low-cost carrier.
  2. The SkyBus business model counted on high use (13 hours / day / /plane) of a 7-plane fleet, with the schedule extremely vulnerable to maintenance issues. They lost 18 flights by grounding only 2 planes.
  3. The SkyBus model has no reciprocity with other carriers, and limited trip cancellation insurance, meaning that beyond a refund, the traveler carries the full burden of finding alternate transport.
  4. The audience for low fares are often unprepared to handle drastic jumps in fares ($150 to $1850 for a family of 5).
  5. When we used SkyBus for business, last-minute changes could escalate a $20 fare to $450 instantly, but we gladly paid because we saved so much time. Except for a lucky few, SkyBus actually isn’t that much cheaper.
  6. From a PR standpoint, rescheduling the same or the next day is not such a big deal. Rescheduling five days later, is. It’s big the way contaminated Tylenol was big – if the event, itself, destroys consumer trust in the product or service, ONLY the company’s response and message will rebuild it. For any PR department, this ought to kick off a significant response.

Bottom line, I have seen little that indicates SkyBus is interested in making a service recovery, or is truly interested in the plight of its passengers. On the contrary, the message seems to be: “Grow up! You want low fares? Plan way ahead, change nothing, and accept the fact that we might well leave you stranded with no recourse from us.”

Can you feel the love?

For more on this story, The Columbus Dispatch has an excellent article on the cancellation and its implications.

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