At last week's Aviation Day USA, I kept waiting for Dr. Evil — the Austin Powers movie character — to spring from behind the stage with a mischievous grin.
I got that feeling because in front of an industry audience — the event was sponsored by IATA, a trade group, and the Wings Club — insiders mostly spoke not about how to improve the passenger experience, but how to make more money and reduce government regulation. At times, it seemed they were more preoccupied with getting governments out of their business than anything else.
No one wants to mess with safety, of course. But IATA leaders seemed to scoff at consumer protections, arguing the industry can police itself while praising the Trump administration for its regulatory approach. "We'd like to see a lot more of the same," IATA general counsel Jeffrey Shane told Jeffrey Rosen, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The two worked in the George W. Bush administration and were unusually chummy during an on-stage interview session.
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Read on to see my stories from the IATA event, as well as more commentary on IATA's positions, and a dispatch from a recent Delta Air Lines product event.
|It's probably safe to say Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's CEO, is not a proponent of governments meddling in an airline's commercial decisions.|
"Under the Obama administration, the Department of Transportation retreated from some of the principles of free and open market competition in favor of a more heavy-handed approach to regulation," he told attendees at last week's event, adding the current climate is more hospitable.
What were these Obama-era overreaches? He gave three examples:
That airlines have to advertise their full ticket price is unfair. "Why should air travelers be treated any differently than other consumers in a country where tax is almost universally applied on top of the advertised price?" he said. Perhaps true, but this is a nice consumer benefit. Maybe the rest of the U.S. should adopt the same policy?
The government should not ban cell phone calls on planes. "Absent a safety issue, it is hard to see how DOT had authority to regulate in this area," he said. Maybe not, but again, not a bad rule.
The U.S. government had considered requiring airlines to distribute flight and fare information to metasearch companies and global distribution systems. The problem, he said, was that there would be "no restrictions on how the information was presented to consumers."
Those are all reasonable enough complaints. But among consumer groups, there's concern the Trump administration may roll back a slew of regulations designed to protect passengers. In February, The Wall Street Journal reported many U.S. airlines want the administration to weaken tarmac-delay rules, end the mandatory 24-hour grace period for airline tickets, and stop requiring airlines to advertise the full ticket prices, including taxes and fees.
At the event, Jeffrey Shane, IATA's general counsel, suggested that the government had overstepped with some of its Obama-era rules.
"By deregulating the industry, we democratized it," he said. "So everybody is an expert in this industry. Before they couldn't afford to be, now they are. The net result is that it has become a political issue so any time any bad thing happens to anybody on any flight, it becomes a political opportunity. Somebody strikes out for justice and a new law is written and we have a regulation following shortly thereafter."
Rosen, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said he agreed.
"It is not ultimately in the consumer's interest to have burdens that they in some sense wind up paying for, but may not fully benefit from," he said.
|I attended lunch at the restaurant Animal in Los Angeles earlier this week to preview Delta's menu from Los Angeles-Sydney. These are odd events, because an airline is trying to persuade an unusual crowd — lifestyle and food bloggers, plus Instagram personalities — that their brand is at the vanguard of food culture.|
That's not easy. We know airline food is produced in bulk, and cooked, then chilled, then re-heated and served onboard. So even when an airline like Delta contracts with celebrity chefs — in this case it's Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who are big deals in L.A. — the food is not much better than the usual flight kitchen fare. That can be disappointing for a consumer who books based on food — a classic case of over-promising and under-delivering.
Here's what I liked about Delta's partnership with the two chefs. Shook and Dotolo never promised they'd produce the same quality food as at their restaurant empire. Shook spoke about several challenges, including how food is re-heated on board in poor-quality ovens and how airline food may be no more than two inches high.
Shook and Dotolo are starting small, catering only three routes from L.A. — Sydney, Washington Reagan, and New York JFK. They use their own catering kitchen near LAX, and then truck the food to Delta's usual caterer, which transports it to the plane. Shook told an amusing anecdote about how the real caterer reacted when he said they would not use powdered eggs. "They were so shocked that we were going to use real eggs," he said. The two chefs also were proud that even their parsley is hand-picked.
Delta's not the only airline catering this way, but it is still an unusual approach. Often, airlines have a celebrity chef "design" the menu, but turn over the real cooking to the flight kitchen. Shook and Dotolo said they're keeping ownership over everything, and while it may not be restaurant quality, I believed them when they said they were competitive people who want to make the best plane food they could.
Having tasted it, I can say it was fine. But even here, I'll credit Delta and the chefs. I've been to airline events where chefs make the food taste better than in the air, using techniques not available to flight attendants. But Shook and Dotolo insisted on cooking the food as on the plane, chilling and re-heating the food per Delta's standards.
Delta has a similar relationship with Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group for New York departing flights. At last year's Skift Global Forum in New York, my colleague Kristen Hawley asked Meyer about the relationship.
"There's just no way the gnocchi is going to taste exactly like at the Union Square Cafe," he said. "But if you say yes, but relative to what people expect to eat on an airplane, can we elevate that?"
|Skift Airline Business Reporter Brian Sumers [email@example.com] curates the Skift Airline Innovation Report. Skift emails the newsletter every Wednesday. Have a story idea? Or a juicy news tip? Want to share a memo? Send me an email or tweet me.|
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