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Why Airlines Should Think About Changing Diapers

August 19, 2013 at 1:38 PM | by | ()

Traveling solo or with a partner or even a group of friends is easy compared to traveling with little kids. This week we'll be posting some insights and tips from the family travelers of the Jaunted crew starting with Charles Ogilvie who we got to know when he was director of in-flight entertainment at Virgin America back in 2006. Today he's an aviation consultant...and a dad to two lap children, 15-month-old, Chris and 2-month-old, Pete. Here, he looks at the quality of transcontinental flights today and how they can be improved for families.

Flashback: Transcontinental – Seat 9A – 2004

United launched its p.s. Premium Service product in 2004 using completely refurbished Boeing 757s. At the time, I was working for Virgin USA in New York, but travelling on transcons fairly frequently to California. The Virgin USA and ultimately, Virgin America team was trying to build a better way to travel, something that would push the entire market to think it deserved better and could do better. United was ahead because they had aircraft already flying. (VX was actually born six years ago and shared their product with the flying public on inaugural flights on 8/8/2007.)

By “chance”, my seatmate (he had 9A and I had 9B) on one of my first United p.s. flights was Davis Masten who, at the time, was the Chief Catalyst at Cheskin, a brilliant company that he and Christopher Ireland later sold to the WPP Group in 2007.

In any event, the story isn’t about Davis or how we chatted for hours and went on to become friends, but instead it is about knowing your customers.

For those who know him, Davis likes to work things in reverse or in unconventional ways to try to unearth solutions. From some deep conversations I’ve had with him, I feel his mantra could partially be summarized that the better you understand your customers or the market, the better chance you can plan for something you might otherwise have forgotten. He understands that both problems exist to be solved and dialogues that are focused using the right tools can sometimes be the best tools to tackling a problem or at least getting to ask the right question. He is up there with many thought leaders in my mind and I’d say I’ve learned a lot from my interactions with him over the years.

What Consumers Want From Transcon Flights

So, since early United p.s. days, the bar steadily been raised and is so high in the Transcon flight segment (frankly, as it should have been long ago) that it is getting closer to what was once dubbed “international experiences”.

Despite improvement, some problems remain with US domestic transcons. Consumers now not just want more, they expect more and they expect consistency. WiFi, entertainment, and decent tasting food are now requirements. Without them, many could perceive a deteriorated experience.

The broader focus and attention towards in-cabin product we see nowadays should be applauded and is really a great thing for both the passengers traveling, as well as the airlines themselves as they are learning what products can help achieve higher yields, improved passenger satisfaction metrics and, ultimately, retention of loyal passengers for repeat purchases. The fact that the industry association concerned with airline passenger experience operates a successful blog is great for passengers and airlines.

For those of you who fly these routes frequently, you probably are already aware that the major transcon players (JFK-LAX/SFO) with non-stop offerings are: United, Delta, American, Virgin America and JetBlue.

There was a pretty good summary done of the state of things recently (I personally disagree at the implication that Virgin America’s IFE is mediocre J, although I do concede it “has aged”. Has Atari 2600 or NES aged or would you call it mediocre?...you get my point! ) by the wandering aramean.

Flashforward: Transcontinental – Row 11 – August 2013

So, my most recent p.s. flight (just a few days ago this month), I had opted to fly United p.s. with my family. Having two infants (one is 2 months old – Pete and one is 15 months old – Chris), I wanted enough space in the overhead as well as the ability to gate check two strollers and a car seat.

Parents with young kids know that there is a lot of planning from initial packing to the choreographed unpacking of short-term and longer-term flight necessities like formula, powder, water, sleepsacks, etc., and all of that is easier done in the lull that occurs right before the general boarding gates are opened. I have status on United, so it seemed like a no brainer to buy two tickets and two infant lap tickets.

Well, the flight was great and the crew couldn’t have been nicer! My Million Miler status on United doesn’t get me free WiFi like Southwest’s A-List Preferred does, but it was a good flight.

But, there was a key miss on the p.s. aircraft the flight attendants pointed out when I asked where I could find one: a changing table for infants was nowhere to be found.

I looked online (courtesy of a paid GoGo session) to see if this might have been a fluke or if the aircraft I was on might have been swapped from another route temporarily, but for some reason United never modified these aircraft with changing table kits. I would expect bassinets only with newer seats and bulkheads, but I would also have expected a lavatory-changing table as a standard item for the courtesy of all passengers or guests.

What’s also funny is that I don’t call meeting someone randomly inflight anymore a “chance meeting”, I call it a “very likely occurrence on certain flights”.

On the return p.s. flight to San Francisco, we saw an old friend and a major contributor to global Bluetooth adoption and personal health, Hosain Rahman . He was on our p.s. flight and, yes, wearing his UP!

Hoss actually recently had a baby six months ago. Although not traveling with him on this particular flight, my point is that many people who fly transcon flights can be characterized as “high yield” or “high value” passengers, but they also are real people. They don’t just need wine, WiFi and fresh upholstery (great job p.s.!), but there are other things that might help as well. There will be a time when others like Hoss bring infants, friends, parents, or significant others and all of those combinations need to be thought through. Going back to Davis’ and others techniques at looking at things in different ways to unearth solutions, passenger experience and perception wins as a driver every time.

I have attached a few photos of my most recent p.s. journey with Pete and Chris. As you can probably tell, the product has been significantly enhanced over the years. More comfy United pillows next to Pete, free toothbrush kits upon seating, wrapped thicker duvets, and if you look at Chris in one shot carefully, even a refined food menu that has delicious pretzel bread!

In my opinion, United crews globally are more happier today and can now see the progress that Smisek and team have done putting the airline on the right trajectory to success. My advice is keep listening and adapting to the customer. Front-line employees are some of my best sources of understanding the custome, so don’t forget a healthy dose of employee feedback. Like Masten, I know that Smisek listens well, as he put a 747 fleet back on HKG-SIN fairly quickly after a decision was made to move to narrowbody in that market. He received huge accolades from travelers and staff for that decision.

To wrap up, courtesy of the GoGo connection, I searched for a few things on that flight regarding the infant changing table issue:

· The infant changing table shortage is not new on older aircrafts.
· Airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America have new fleets and, therefore, were able to get the tables installed at the factory.
· Other airlines also take jabs from angry passengers over the issue. For example, Richard Anderson at Delta is currently being petitioned by a passenger who wants changing tables installed on Delta aircraft.

The short answer to it all is that if an airline recognizes that one part of the experience will always be falling behind and makes a plan to get ahead of it, you should continue to see airline “rebirths” every few years. I’ve enjoyed seeing United’s rebirth, Delta’s massive improvements, and am excited to see JetBlue’s rebirth and I am sure there will be more soon, not just in this transcon market but elsewhere as well!

Anyways, let’s all start by thinking about something as simple as changing diapers; I am sure lots of good ideas will come from there!

Alright parents and non parents, here's your chance to sound off on families on airplanes. Have at it in comments below.

Archived Comments:

In the back!

I have two little one--a toddler and a 1-year-old-and we make the trip from LA to NJ or FL pretty frequently to see family. Usually on Virgin America or United/Continental. I've never not had a changing table onboard. However, it usually in the lavatory at the back of the plane, not the front.

I learned this once when I had to change a poopie diaper as the plane was descending and flight attendants told me to do it quick--meaning I didn't have enough time to race to the back of the plane. Fortunately, the baby was still pretty small I could do it on my lap in the lavatory. TMI. Sorry.

But it doesn't surprise me that the PS plane wouldn't have a changing table. Aren't they supposed to be for the biz traveler contingent anyways?


A friend of mine read this article while on a plane with her toddler and there was no diaper changing table on the plane. It's a real problem.

Low cost: nightmare

If the best airlines do not provide this kind of service, just imagine what low cost airlines offer to their clients. There is no space even for their trolleys. That is why I prefer to travel by car, when it is possible of course. I can stop anywhere to change diapers.