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Keeping social media in perspective

From nowhere, social media award ceremonies have sprouted across Europe and North America like a particularly itchy rash.  A slew of self-appointed “social media experts” is on hand to hand trinkets to all manner of organisations, from local authorities to airlines, for the best use of social media.  In some ways they should be congratulated, most rent-seeking groups take at least a decade to garner this level of attention.  This frenetic growth and sudden influence is, however, causing the entire medium to mutate into something dreadful that is only going to consume itself.

It is the immediate nature of social media, long promoted as its key differentiator, that threatens to undermine the medium as it evolves from something purely social and asks to be taken seriously as a source of learning and communications.  Practitioners feel pressurised to react to any event remotely within their field of interest; in the absence of hard facts or considered analysis, this results in a legion of self-appointed authorities screaming into the ether, determined that there should be no silence at any cost.  It is the demon of rolling news set free from even the loosest editorial guidelines or sense checks.

You don’t need to look far to see how absurd the social media world has become.  By now, everyone must have read about the intercontinental ballistic missile that the United States tested over the Pacific as a warning to China?

This effect is compounded by the belief of many actors within social media that they are normal people and represent the interests of the public at large; in defiance of the statistics showing that the use of Twitter, blogs and RSS feeds are niche activities.

Look at the righteous indignation which aviation bloggers and tweeters have poured on Rolls-Royce in the wake of the QF32 incident.  Almost to man, they are convinced that Rolls will somehow “pay” for not sharing more information and tweeting on an hourly basis.  They seem to believe that they are the customers that Rolls should be worried about.

Utter hokum.

Rolls-Royce has a relationship with QANTAS which is measured in decades.  I’m sure both sides were in constant communication.  Similarly, I’m sure the board and senior management in Derby were providing their other major customers with personal updates.  Rolls Royce owes nothing to Twitter.

I also dismiss the cries of anguish about the travelling public loosing confidence in aircraft powered by Rolls in the absence of an update from the company.  This is nonsense in more ways than I can count – 95% of the travelling public are not in the least aware which sort of aircraft will be operating the cheap flight they found on Kayak.  Just in case I’m not being clear here, let me state explicitly that people posting to FlyerTalk and Aliners.net, lovely as I’m sure a few of them may be, are social outliers.  If I was being very mean, I’d link to articles written by “expert aviation bloggers” where they’ve mis-identified the engines on a particular airline’s fleet – there are countless examples.

Of more interest is what, precisely, the world of social media expected to hear from a Rolls-Royce Twitter account…

“Looking for the turbine disc.”

“The turbine disc has been found.”

“As we have no laboratories in the Malaysian jungle, we have no information.”

“The damaged turbine disc has been loaded onto a cargo aircraft.”

“The turbine disc is in flight.”

“The disc is still in flight – just overflew Tashkent.”

“Woop – the damaged disc is in European Airspace!”

“QF32′s wrecked engine and assorted debris have now landed at East Midlands Airport – our techies are stoked!”

The very premise is absurd.  A hugely complicated piece of engineering failed – Rolls were not giving answers because they had none.  For a few days, anything said was pure speculation.

Time and again, these events occur and the social web goes insane looking for clues and information.  The spectacle of bloggers and tweeters examining the exact wording of statements and press releases, many of which have been subject to the whims of a translator, is becoming grotesque.

The reality is that those of us how rely on verified facts and considered opinion to do our daily tasks are still served far better by long-form articles in newspapers and journals.  The cycle, daily in newspapers, perhaps quarterly in journals, of editing and reconsidering events as facts emerge is invaluable.  Human beings cannot read and filter the torrent of information offered by social media; without the help of an editor we naturally pay attention to the stories, and people, who reinforce our existing prejudices – a dangerous situation to be in.  We love to hear news and views we agree with, this fact should make us question those who are good at attracting large followings on Twitter and the like – telling the public what they want to hear is not the same as being capable of rigorous analysis. Media organisations who have tied their publications to bloggers should consider this carefully – what long-term damage are you doing to a trusted brand?  It’s noticeable that some of the most valued and lucrative media brands have limited their engagement with social media.  Can you name a blogger from Bloomberg?  Conversely, can you name any blog network that can charge $20,000 a year for properly researched newsletters?

As an experiment, try dropping Twitter and the phalanx of iPhone apps (which draw you to the headline) for a week.  Instead, subscribe to a few newspapers and journals on a Kindle.  See what a revelation returning to a linear media format is – you’ll flick through publications, stopping to read articles on subject you would never of searched for online.  I promise that after a week you shudder to think how limited your world-view was becoming when delivered through social media – the very opposite of what it promised.

Social media is an excellent way to stay in touch with friends.  Twitter and Facebook are fun for sharing links and you may even find an offer or two from an airline or a hotel group that suits you, but can we please stop pretending that it’s a serious business tool?

Consider what social media does to the economics of the internet for businesses – in many cases it turns an efficient one-to-many transaction into a costly one-to-one transaction.  It’s simply not sustainable to engage with everyone who bitches about you on Twitter.

Secondly, think about your consumption of information.  Why is it that you’ll refer to peer-reviewed academic journals to write an undergraduate paper when you’re a student, but then trust the, unedited, views of some random blogger to inform your professional life?  In any process, feeding bullshit in will only ever result in bullshit being produced – it’s time to return to investing effort and some cash into maintaining your knowledge level.

Find a few newspapers and journals that you trust then subscribe to them.

Oh, and I am aware of the irony that lies within using a blog to highlight the deficiencies of social media – those comments are not necessary.  I’m also aware that there are a some great bloggers out there – people with the discipline to stick to their true area of expertise and patient enough to properly research and craft articles, but they are an increasingly small minority.

Boeing and the Suspension of Disbelief

Following a statement from Boeing concerning another delay to their 787 project, the faithful corps of aviation journalists have, within minutes of the original statement, repeated the mantra that this delay has been caused by a failure of a Rolls-Royce engine on a test bench.

Boeing PR must be beside themselves with glee.

The official release makes reference to workmanship, instrumentation issues and the engine issue.  Boeing then goes on to state that:

“While Boeing works closely with Rolls-Royce to expedite engine availability, flight testing across the test fleet continues as planned.”

Here we have one document stating, simultaneously, that issues with engine availability are impacting the final phases of the flight test, but that flight testing “continues as planned”.  This is corporate doublespeak at it’s worst, yet I’m still to see an aviation journalist question the point.

All that this confused statement tells us is that Boeing is still not in control of the project.  Yes, the Rolls failure is a setback, but I’d be amazed if it was the blockage in the critical path – it’s simply a useful distraction.

Boeing’s woolly statement offers no reason to suggest that this aircraft will be delivered as now scheduled in the first quarter of 2011.  I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it sees airline service before 2012.

Most disheartening though is the lack of independent or critical consideration amongst specialist journalists.  Occasionally I browse the Flight International archive from the sixties and seventies – it shames much of today’s output.  Analysis and investigation has been sacrificed for quantity and an endless stream of bloggers competing to see who can publish fastest rather than most thoughtfully.

Yahoo!, Public Spending and Credibility

Remember back in 1999 when Yahoo! seemed all-powerful and those of us working for internet start-ups gazed in awe at them?  Remember when Yahoo! Auctions was a credible, and fee-free, alternative to ebay and everyone from excite to Lycos tried to copy My Yahoo!, but never produced something quite as good?

We all know what happened over the next decade, as Google seemingly invented a new way of printing cash and relegated Yahoo! to the status of afterthought or nostalgic curiosity for most internet users.  As employees have steadily thrown themselves from the sinking ship, there have been no shortage of insider accounts and opinions about what went wrong and who was to blame, many bitter and few interesting.  However, last week, a gem emerged.

Paul Graham published an article about what happened when Yahoo! bough a company he worked for and one of the key messages struck me as being of huge relevance to the UK Public Sector as October’s spending review approaches.

Paul argues that the main problem at Yahoo! was, simply, that money was too easy.  The organisation was never asked to ensure that it delivered maximum value and, as a result, when money started tightening Yahoo! was not equipped to make rational decisions about which projects represented value for money.  This failure led to a loss of credibility and, in turn, ever tighter supply of cash – a viscous circle which Yahoo! may never break free from.

Across Whitehall, government departments are trying to seem credible when fighting cuts after a decade in which project after project has failed to deliver value, or even utility.  Of course, this pattern isn’t new.  In transport, we have seen repeatedly how huge fluctuations in funding have created massive waste – the industry must learn to evaluate projects as stringently in the good times as it does in the bad.  How much of the the cash made available to the railways during the Moderisation Plan of the 1950s was blown on marshalling yards few really wanted and poorly designed locomotives that struggled to reach their 21st birthday?  We know what happened next, stripped of credibility in the eyes of government, Dr Beeching was brought in from ICI and charged with pruning the railway into profitability.  That he may not have known much about the industry was of little consequence, its leaders had squandered their reputations along with millions of pounds.

Roger Ford, and others, have spent years warning of “boiling frogs” – the explosion in costs on the railway, yet the Department of Transport and many of it’s suppliers have ploughed ahead with absurd rolling stock specifications and maintenance prices and practices that bear little relation to modern reality.  IEP may serve as the poster child for waste, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg, how many Voyagers run around the country with expensive tilt mechanisms locked out of service?  Once again, after ten years of easy money, the industry lacks all integrity in the eyes of a government which must slash spending.

Continental’s 787

Continental Airlines is merging with United to form one of the world’s largest carriers and so, they tell us, provide an expanded global reach that better serves lucrative corporate customers.  This expanded network will, by definition, have more competitors.  Across the Atlantic, the new United has to compete for business class travellers with the offerings of flat-bed pioneers British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.  Over the Pacific, customers can choose from Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, ANA and a range of other carriers famous for excellent service.  Those heading to the Middle East, South Asia and even Australia may easily be tempted by the high-quality products offered by Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

None the less, the newly enlarged and emboldened United will, presumably, wish to compete for the most profitable market segments on the basis of quality and innovation.  Surely this merger isn’t about postponing inevitable decline by, temporarily, boosting the number of passengers snared in frequent flier programmes, US government contracts and large corporate deals?  After all, Continental is the shining star amongst US legacies, the one carrier who seemed to hold out against the inexorable decline in standards and even continued offering food years after its competition and sent their catering equipment to the scarpyard.

The evidence so far is far from encouraging.  Earlier this week, Contintental unveiled the mock up of its 787 business class cabin to business traveller buyers.  How depressing.

This is one of the world’s largest carriers launching a new aircraft and the best they can come up with is a business class product that looks to be narrow, lacking in privacy and, worst of all, inferior to what’s already being offered by key competitors on trunk routes.  Such a waste of an opportunity to leverage excitement about the 787.

Of course, Continental in its existing form has proven adept at avoiding direct competition by serving secondary markets from its hubs with smaller aircraft, but unless the the merged airline is to maintain seperate brands, improvements will have to be made – it’s simply too large to remain lurking in the shadows of small regional cities.  Even rolling this strategy out into developing markets is not sustainable in the long-term.  Continental have announced 787 service from Houston to Lagos – a nice monopoly at the moment but open to competition at any moment from expanding Arik Air and their luxuriously appointed aircraft.

I’m not even sure I understand why this launch went ahead.  I know they had space to fill at an exhibition hall, but this really can’t be what the merged airline plans to offer in the medium-term.  Far better to have minimised confusion by abandoning this and waiting to present a well considered launch and deployment strategy for a new, unified, product.

A new home

The posts below were originally published through blogger.

I have decided to move them, and future posts, to this website in order to escape the ugliness of Blogger’s templates.

Users of the RSS feed should be automatically receiving updates from the new location.

FlyBe, Embraer and High Speed Rail

At the recent Farnborough Air Show, FlyBe, the UK regional carrier announced an order for 35 Embraer 175 aircraft, with options and purchase rights which could see up to 140 of these 88-seat aircraft delivered.  Subject to the normal retirements and fleet rotation, these will join FlyBe’s existing fleet of 14 118-seat Embraer 195s and 58 (plus 8 on order) smaller Bombardier Q400s.

FlyBe stated that these aircraft would support planned European growth, which others have interpreted as meaning a reduction in service to the UK market.  It has even been suggested that the new UK government’s commitment to high speed rail is driving FlyBe from its home market.

This is utter nonsense. It is, in fact, the infatuation with high-speed rail, of one form or another, which has driven FlyBe’s growth in the UK and it is this model which the company plans to export to Europe.

High-speed rail is enormously capital intensive, with huge fixed assets which can only be fully exploited on the busiest of transport corridors.  Thus, we see high-speed networks radiating form Paris and Madrid to provincial cities; linking the northern-European capitals via Eurostar and Thalys; and weaving through coastal Japan’s economic hubs.  North of London, there may not be true high-speed rail, but frequency is almost as important as speed over shorter distances, and 200Km/h trains serve London from Manchester and Birmingham every twenty minutes, with half-hourly service to Leeds and other important cities.  A future high-speed rail network might provide extra capacity on these corridors and may, eventually, stretch as far as Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Experience shows us that the construction of high-speed rail has many consequences, but two are of particular note to FlyBe.  First of all, it increases customer expectation – passengers become accustomed to shorter journeys and convenient, frequent, departures.  Secondly, particularly in Europe and especially in the current fiscal climate, it drains resources from the rest of the network.  Non-TGV long-distance trains in France are slowly dying on the vine.  In the UK, a desire to trim a few pennies from the exploding rail budget saw cross-country services dramatically pruned at the last franchise renewal.

To put this in the context of FlyBe, we can see that, while the principal fast rail routes in the UK are great for those visiting London, other axis are poorly served – particularly those between the north-east and south-west.  No rational or affordable expansion of high-speed rail in the UK will serve these markets, so travelers venturing between regional business centres, such a Edinburgh and Southampton, will continue to be a captive market.  Even leisure traffic to the South is being forced onto FlyBe’s Bombardier’s by the rationalisation of the cross-country network – nobody wants to put their elderly mother onto a train in Edinburgh knowing that she’ll have to heave her luggage between trains in the Stygian labyrinth that is Birmingham New Street.

High-speed rail might, though not as surely as politicians claim, impact domestic flights from London – this is more a worry for those plying routes to Edinburgh and Glasgow, travel to Manchester and the north-west is already dominated by rail.  FlyBe’s services from Gatwick to Inverness and Aberdeen will continue – even if a train reaches Edinburgh in 150 minutes, passenger for Inverness will spend another three and a half hours pootling north, probably changing trains in the process; recall my earlier point about rising expectations.  Even flights to Newcastle and Leeds might remain viable if travellers from small financial hubs like, Redhill and Brighton, can’t be persuaded to head into London and take a tube to a high-speed terminal at Euston.

In short, the trends favoring FlyBe will not be affected by any proposed rail policy.  As FlyBe continues to build market share and awareness on it’s UK routes, it will replace Q400s with the larger Embraer 175s and start building new markets in Europe.  In terms of land mass, both Spain and France are far larger than the UK, with scattered cities which can never be quickly connected by rail.  FlyBe knows this and should be able to export its business model.  Liner Italy is, like Japan, more suited to rail but Germany, with no one dominant city, should also provide the airline with rich pickings.

I suspect that some, concerned about emissions of carbon dioxide, will bemoan this state of affairs.  This seems misplaced anger – I can’t imagine that, on the basis of actual passenger-kilometers, a heavily-loaded Q400 creates more emissions than two diesel locomotives slowly propelling nine carriages between Edinburgh and Inverness with only a handful of customers in each.  It might be considered cruel to request that Bombardier provide comparable data for its aircraft and the heavy, thirsty, Voyager trains it supplied for the UK’s cross-country network.

Air Berlin and OneWorld – Some Questions

At a press conference this afternoon, Air Berlin will be unveiled as a member-elect of the OneWorld Alliance.  While I can understand why this might not seem to be massive news today, I think it could mark the start of some exciting developments.

Brandenburg International
On most measures, Berlin is the second largest city in the European Union, perhaps half as populous as London, but of a similar size to Madrid, Paris and Rome.  The population of Berlin is around three times that of Munich and six times larger than Frankfurt.  Even if we are to consider wider metropolitan areas, Berlin is, by some margin, Germany’s largest market.  It might be argued that the region is not as prosperous as others in Germany, but that differential will continue to close.

In terms of air service, Berlin is a wasteland, with almost all of Germany’s long-haul connections being fed into Lufthansa’s hubs in Frankfurt and Munich; a legacy of post-war partition.  Attempts to create a hub operation within the city have, until now, been stymied by the inadequate facilities at Tegel Airport – Air Berlin feeds connecting traffic through secondary hubs in Dusseldorf, Paderborn and Nuremberg.

With the imminent opening of Brandenburg International, Berlin will finally have an airport capable of supporting an efficient hub operation.  As Emirates demonstrates so effectively, transport networks don’t lend themselves well to economies of scale, but do generate returns through increased density. For this reason I think it unlikely that Lufthansa, despite what it might say to local politicians, will establish a third German hub in Berlin.  Air Berlin, on the other hand, has the opportunity to consolidate its German operations at one airport – this is where, potentially, OneWorld comes in.  With long-haul traffic into Frankfurt and Munich increasingly dominated by Star Alliance partners, we could see OneWorld members focusing on services to Berlin; feed from a rejuvenated Air Berlin network at Brandenburg complimenting the local O&D traffic.  Look out for announcements in the coming years from Cathay Pacific, American and QANTAS/Jetstar.

JetBlue, JetStar and OneWorld
The inclusion of Air Berlin into One World is going to dramatically increase the number of connections which offer only one-class service.  While this might lead to apoplexy amongst a few frequent fliers, and a lot more mileage junkies, it seems the be the thin end of the wedge.

Most European airlines are providing short-haul business class in name only.  The only real benefits are lounge access and marginally better catering.  There’s seldom more leg room and some don’t even block the middle seat.  I think most paying business class travelers will be happy with Air Berlin’s on-board service for a short connecting segment if they still have access to priority check-in and lounges.

The question is, once the rubicon has been crossed, does it open the doors to future alliance membership from other single-cabin airlines?  Might JetBlue’s flirtation with American lead it to the OneWorld party?  As QANTAS switches more domestic capacity and regional routes to JetStar, will they also join?

Integration with British Airways and Iberia
Adding Air Berlin transforms OneWorld’s coverage in Central Europe, but it raises some interesting issues in regard to BA and Iberia.

After a brief attempt at building a UK domestic network, Air Berlin has, largely, left the market, with only a few routes remaining into Stansted and Manchester.  Will Air Berlin now start building up service into Heathrow to feed British Airways?

Air Berlin maintains a hub operation in Palma, largely aimed at sun-seekers from Northern Europe, but also competing with Iberia for traffic to mainland Spain.  Will this continue in its current form?

More interesting, if highly speculative, is the prospect of Air Berlin becoming part of International Airline Group, the holding company for a merged BA and Iberia.  Iberia has made no secret of its desire to move some short and medium-haul routes to a new carrier with a lower cost base, while BA has long been wondering how to reduce the service offering on short-haul routes from Gatwick without damaging the mainline brand.  Could Air Berlin be the solution to both of these problems?  On the other hand, BA has bitter memories of the losses it incurred dabbling in the German market – Deutsche BA was, after a long death spiral, swallowed by Air Berlin.

Lots of questions and exciting possibilities – perhaps we’ll hear a few answers later this afternoon.


After something of a hiatus from the world of blogging, this seems like an interesting time to jump back in.  I’m not interested in being the first person to blog and react to every last announcement or rumor to spew forth from the aviation industry.  Rather, I’ll provide comment, when I have time, about subjects I believe I understand.

Please feel free to leave comments if you think I’ve misunderstood something, but do try to remain polite and know that I have no interest in schoolyard arguments about Boeing and Airbus, or any of the other minutiae people choose to get excited about – you can find plenty of willing playmates for that sort of business strewn across the internet.

At the moment, I’m most interested in the implications of Air Berlin’s membership of OneWorld and the way in which FlyBe stands to benefit from the expansion of high-speed rail.  Posts will follow shortly.