PeoplExpress Starts Operations June 30, 2014

PeoplExpress is a strange concoction. I paid a bit of attention to it a couple years ago because Newport News is about 20 miles from where I live. The more attention I paid, the less interested I became. Rather than a brave aviation experiment, PeoplExpress seems more of a case study in failed business planning and development practices.

Here are but a few:

The essential marketing strategy for the company has never been clear, apart from reliance upon what I refer to as the “Doctrine of Cheap Things.” This being that, if you sell something cheap enough, some people will buy it, regardless of whether it adds any real value. The on-line travel seller’s market is also filled with such outfits.

There are frequent references to the company’s customer-friendly intentions, and a “cheap with a smile” attitude, but no one has ever explained how precisely this is going to work. Delivering the same or a similar set of miserable customer services as most every other aviation company, but doing it with a better attitude, seems to be an amazingly shallow strategy. If the company is somehow expecting service enhancements, it’s never been clear what these might be, how they will be affordable within a “cheaper is better” business model, and why this approach might be sustainable.

As many others more qualified that I have remarked, the company’s fleet and operations strategy simply doesn’t make sense. In this context, that which doesn’t make sense usually doesn’t work either. There are exceedingly rare exceptions, but that’s a poor way to plan a business.

The business planning failures are even more striking, especially when you consider them in the context that they do contain some partial logic–but you have to have been there to appreciate it.

PeoplExpress appears to have been contrived by a very small group of people who shared some basic assumptions. None of these appear to have been validated either by the marketplace (one assumes that the service launch in a few days will be part of that exercise), or by adequate research and planning.

One is that there remains some value and goodwill in the PeoplExpress name. I’ve never met, or even heard of, anyone apart from the management team who believes this. Most travel industry people old enough to remember People Express Airlines have the opposite, or at least conflicted, recollections.

Another is that Newport News is a logical place to base an airline.

In a way, it is. Some commentators have remarked that there is no logic in trying to complete with a perfectly adequate and well-served airport in Norfolk. There is–but only if you live here.

I never fly from Norfolk–never. I’ll drive to Richmond, which is somewhat further (and just as well-served), or occasionally to Washington, which is a lot further. The reason is that there is no good way to get to or from Norfolk International from this part of the Virginia Peninsula. It can take 30 minutes, or three hours. There’s no way to predict and it’s a miserable trip on a good day. That route is notorious in local thought and urban mythology. If there were such things as trolls, local people would be assuring you that they are found in abundance underneath the bridge that forms part of the route that you have to travel.

If you’ve ever spent an hour in a car stuck in traffic in a tunnel underneath the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll understand what I mean.

However true that may be, it’s an inadequate business strategy. It’s usually a fatal mistake to base strategy on what you personally find appealing–unless you’ve been able to prove that large numbers of other people happen to agree with you.

The 200,000 or so people in the direct service area for Newport News on this side of the water will probably agree that more service from Newport News / Williamsburg International is a good idea. The million or so people on the other side probably will not. No one has convincingly tested either of these assumptions, by the way.

Early on, PeoplExpress tried to get support from Norfolk to establish its base there–the idea was rebuffed. The company’s first business office was in Norfolk.

Newport News is a delightful airport to use because almost nobody uses it. As soon as it becomes busy, it is a far less attractive facility.

All this is why there is a market for good consultants. By that I mean equally aviation and business experts who will look at situations objectively and tell you the truth. There are far too few of these.

PeoplExpress is an idea that is so flawed in concept and execution that it’s impossible to rationalize how it even might succeed.