I was astonished. The vice president of a top-ten airline stood at the podium of a major research conference as he relinquished the last remnant of competitive advantage for his company.

In his speech, he proclaimed that U.S. airlines are in a commodity business. He asserted that the airlines are little more than a conveyance between points “A” and “B.” Moreover, there is little that any airline can do to differentiate itself other than by price, and should strive to be as efficient as possible, he said.

Decorum precludes me from mentioning the presenter by name. But, he works for an airline located in “America” and it flies out “West.”

Being from Dallas, I had to ask the obvious question: “Sir, if air travel is a commodity and times are understandably tough, why does Southwest Airlines continue to show a profit?”

“Well,” he paused, “We are not Southwest Airlines. Besides, they are kind of a special case.”

I couldn't help but agree with his conclusion, having been subjected to two of his discourteous crew members that week.

Air travel as a commodity? I suppose if you studied enough forecasting models and financial statements, a sense of cynicism might lead you to that conclusion.

But as airline passengers, we know something that he apparently doesn't: kindness and decent treatment by flight crews can make a remarkable difference to us.

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Mitch McCasland (mmccasland@moroch.com) is director of insight and brand strategy at Moroch Partners (www.moroch.com) and a leading advocate of using customer insights and competitive intelligence as a basis for brand strategy, advertising, and new product design.