Uber and Jetblue are leading a dumbing down of travel

11 25, 2014

This is the story of two brands in travel. One respected, one trying to get respect. One is Uber, the other is JetBlue.

Both, however, have sadly started down a path that will likely undermine their brand value, albeit for different reasons. The reasoning behind this journey, and how technology affects it, is an interesting story.

So let-s start with JetBlue

The company has struggled with profitability for years. It essentially got rid of its founder David Neeleman after a disastrous customer service episode brought on by the famous St Valentines Ice Storm in New York on Feb 14 2007.

The airline turned to "adult supervision" in the form of David Barger to restore order, plus bring back public and investor confidence.

Within three months Neeleman was out as CEO, and out entirely from the airline within six months.

Now again it appears that the Mandarins behind Jetblue have done it again.

Barger is also now leaving the hot seat and, instead, there is a new wind blowing through Jetblue.

Innovation is out and "not being as bad as the other guys" is in.

Last week, JetBlue announced a series of changes to bring the carrier in line with the rest of the US legacy airline industry.

Cramming more seats on its planes through reducing seat pitch and charging for the first bag.

In doing so, JetBlue is bowing to the inevitable pressure that differentiation, when you reach a certain size, doesn't actually matter that much.

Just don't be as bad as the other guys- just be slightly better.

Clearly economics trumps consumer happiness and brand value.-Cue cackling from Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta, homes to its rival carriers.

From a tech perspective, there is an interesting back-story here.

In February 2009, after an extensive search JetBlue, announced that it had selected Sabre to power its reservations system.

Much of the public and private reasoning behind the decision was that the PSS that powered the startup - Navitaire-s NewSkies - wasn-t up to the task of a conventional airline as Jetblue had become.

The cutover, while like all PSS "heart transplants" can be fraught with challenges, occurred a year later in Feb 2010.

It seemed somewhat interesting then, when in 2013, Jetblue launched another extensive search for a new system - its motivation this time was for providing ancillaries for the airline.

Eventually selecting Datalex, the airline announced its decision and stressed the capabilities in the ancillaries area.

Thus it appears that the airline has come full circle and will now be able to do what other Navitaire customers can accomplish with relative ease. However, Jetblue has to do this not with Sabre alone but albeit with a bolt on system for the core PSS.

And what about Uber?

Last week would appear to have caused the US-based based ridesharing app several "tempus horribilis" moments.

First there was the much reported rant by a hand-picked member of the senior team on how to attack journalists.

Then the famous "God view" became exposed.

Finally the week ended with an investigation into one of the company-s location managers using access to company data to seemingly spy on people.

This seemed to reflect a Gordon Gecko-like culture (but without the panache of Michael Douglas) at the company.

The competition between Uber and its direct and indirect competitors like Lyft-must surely be giving Airbnb a lot to smile about.

At least it takes it out of the firing line for some of its own practices, such as the now deemed illegal rentals on the site.

These two episodes seem to bring the sense of legal and ethical behaviour to a new low.

The opinion from the market is that this is having no impact whatsoever on the valuation of Uber and its ability to raise money.

Does this make them the poster child for all that can/could be bad in the world of venture capital?

I am sure there is a lot of money being spent to burnish the reputations of Airbnb and Uber. But in the end, what are they? And are they really different?

What is amazing is that so much is being driven by what is essentially a $1.98 app. (with apologies to Chuck Barris Productions).

True, we know that taxis have been an almost universally bad experience, but really is Uber that much better for either the independent contractors who are drivers and those who legally operate taxi cabs?

For an exhaustive view on the company, I suggest reading this piece.

What can we learn?

It would easy to draw the conclusion that mediocrity and uber-chutzpa are rewarded.

I surely hope not.

If it does then there are a lot of people slaving away at innovation who could be really wasting their time.

And that is a very depressing thought

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