Have We Reached Peak Airline Complexity?

by 
David Kaplan
Thursday, June 13, 2019
 • 
8
 min read

It’s only going to get worse, says Cranky Flier’s Brett Snyder, who says aviation tech advancements have only made the human touch more necessary.

Brett Snyder hardly comes across as the irate character that the titles of his news analysis site Cranky Flier, and related air travel assistance consultancy, Cranky Concierge, would seem to indicate.

Yet the company’s president and “Chief Airline Dork” has spent a two-decade career in commercial aviation continually finding  new ways to be vexed by the complexity airlines appear to inflict on travelers. Whether it’s unbundling (or re-bundling) offers and services, the emergence of new technologies has only made the process of planning and processing airline transactions more challenging for passengers.

Those issues are particularly thorny to navigate for small business travelers who don’t have dedicated corporate departments to manage airline and hotel bookings. While the advent of automation and machine learning, mobile app alerts, and other tools have changed the interactions between airlines and their customers, Snyder, whose career began in pricing management, contends the human touch still remains the most effective means of getting someone from Point A to B with minimal exasperation.   

Kambr Media: How did you get your start in the aviation space?

Brett Snyder: The real start to my career was with America West, when I did pricing out of college and then worked as a pricing analyst/manager from 1999-2002. I was at United Airlines in the marketing planning group and when I left in 2005, and came out to Southern California, I joined a company called PriceGrabber.com, a shopping comparison site.

I'd known the founders for years. They were big at the time, and they wanted to keep growing. One thing they wanted was a travel site. The idea was to do metasearch travel better than Kayak and others in that space.

We built a site that was pretty cool at the time. It had features beyond price and schedule, which is what the airlines wanted to get into. It showed things like on-time performance, in-flight entertainment, and in-seat power. It was the pre-cursor to a lot of the things you see now.

How did that lead to Cranky Flier and then Cranky Concierge?

When this was happening, PriceGrabber had discussion forums. I started trying to seed the forums with posts about what was going on. I wanted to see if it would help build traffic. Anyway, at some point, while this was happening, I had friends who said, "This is pretty good, you know a lot of random stuff. Somebody might actually be interested in what you’re writing. Try it in a different forum, do something else." So I did.

While I was still there, I ended up starting Cranky Flier. That was in 2006. I just started writing about the industry with no plan or any other thoughts of where it could go.

Friends pushed me into it. They bought the URL for me. They said, "Do this." So I did. But I was doing that and still at PriceGrabber. Then PriceGrabber got sold. The new owners decided they didn't want to do travel anymore, or any services. They just wanted to focus on products. They shut it down, and they kept me there in odd jobs. Once travel was gone, there wasn't really much for me to do.

I started doing a little freelancing. Eventually, in 2008, they finally said, "Okay, enough of that,” and they laid me off. I had some severance, and I didn’t need to find a job right away.

My wife had a good job. Well, technically at the time, not my wife. We got married a month after I got laid off.

Good timing.

Yeah. I was like, "Thanks boss." So, I thought, "All right, let me see if I can just turn Cranky Flier into a business." That took about a week. Then I said, "Well that's not going to work."

Blogging as a business doesn't work, especially when it's so narrowly-focused. If I'm doing politics, or entertainment, or sports, that's a different world. But the airline industry? You know, general travel, sure. Or selling people credit cards. But that wasn't quite the thing back then.

And that’s where Cranky Concierge comes in?

It was funny, I started Cranky Flier in 2006. In the summer of 2009,  the same friends that pushed me to start the thing in the first place needed help getting out of a jam with a flight. And it worked out. They were like, "Hey man, you could turn this into a business."

So, in 2009, Cranky Concierge was born.

How has Cranky Flier evolved?

On the Flier side, it has only changed in the sense that I've found different things that appeal to me over time. I write less, but I write more in-depth, usually. When I first started, I'd put out a couple of random little posts a day. Then I realized, "Oh, I can go slightly longer form." In 13 years, very little has changed.

What’s the process like during the week for producing Cranky Flier?

I publish original stuff Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. On Friday, I will compile three links from the week. If I was quoted somewhere, I'll post it on Saturday. But that's pretty much it. Keeping that schedule is almost like a barometer for me. You can look at something and say, "Wow, there are so many things that I want to write about." But ultimately, does it matter? No.

Sometimes, I struggle for a story. There's usually a lot more that I could write about. I'm not trying to break news. I've never really tried to break news. It does happen on occasion, but that's by accident. I provide analysis after the fact. I want a measured, thoughtful response instead of, "Here's what's happening. These are the facts. That's what we got."

How has Cranky Concierge changed over the past decade?

When I started it, it was strictly just monitoring peoples' flights. If you book something, if you want someone to watch it, great. Come on over here, give me your stuff, pay a little bit of money, and we'll monitor it and help you if things go wrong. I said “We’ll,” but at first, it was just me monitoring it.

I figured when I launched Concierge, the appeal would be primarily to people who, at the time, wanted to speak to a person who could sort out an airline issue. If you called United and they sent you to customer representatives in India or the Philippines, that would be the target.

It turned out it appealed to a whole bunch of people. It really surprised me. It wasn't long before we started growing into other areas. In 2011, I had my first real employee, who's still here.

Ultimately, we grew into booking flights. We started doing travel agent work which was good for a couple of reasons. One, it's good revenue. But it's also way easier to help people when things go wrong when you control the reservation, in the [Global Distribution System] GDS, in Sabre. We can go in and re-book people – that's huge. That was a natural progression. Then, we grew into business travel.

Then, we grew into helping people use their miles. It wasn’t so much part of the plan, but simply because people kept asking for it. It's difficult and continues to get more difficult, time-consuming, and costly to clients, so that makes sense for us. Those are the primary services that we offer now, so it's all four of those that come together.

The business is all based on just knowing that someone is there to help. That's the common theme. It's getting help from people that know how to do this better than the traveler might know how to do it. And it’s for people who just don't have the time deal with all the issues of flying.

Who is the audience for Cranky Flier?

It's a mix. The two biggest groups are airline employees or suppliers – people who work in the industry and want to keep up on it.

Then you get the road warriors: the people that are just constantly on the road, and want to be up to date on what’s happening with airlines and the business side of it. They don't necessarily work in the industry; they just use it a lot.

When you get past that category, there's the enthusiasts, the “avgeeks,” if you will; people who just love the industry, even though they may not work in it. Lastly, there are the general readers coming off Google searching for specific topics related to airlines.

Can you tell me more about the Concierge side and how you handle business travel?

Most of the people that we work with on the business travel side would not fall under what you consider “managed travel.”

As companies get bigger, it becomes more about contracts and compliance than anything else. It's just about, "All right. We need to know where everyone is. We need to know what they're spending. We need to make sure that they're sticking to the plan."

We're not trying to compete with Carlson Wagonlit or AMEX Travel. We've generally been more interested in talking to smaller companies. In that area, it’s either people are booking themselves, or there might be an assistant who spends half his or her time booking travel. We come in and say, "Listen, we can take this off that person's plate. First of all, that's not what your assistant should be doing. Your assistant probably has a lot of other stuff that you need them to do."

Secondly, that person is not an expert in booking. We can take it off your plate. Then we'll say, Listen, not only can we do that, but we also can probably save you money." We don't guarantee that, because you can't promise that. But we do get discounts on some airlines. Sometimes we can open up seat assignments. There are things that we can do that can help bring costs down.

More often than not, it's just being smart about how you book in the first place, and how you make changes, and things like that. The assistant may not really know the fastest path to saving money and fixing a problem, whereas we generally do.

As the processes involved with booking a flight become more complex, are there any other services you plan to add to Cranky Concierge?

Recently, we've been playing a little bit more in the land of consolidator fares, net fares –the discounted fares that tend to be packaged with hotel, rental car, etc. We found those can be pretty great for both sides. There's a fair margin to work with that you can get people discounts over just buying straight published fares, and then there's margin for us as well in there.

We're always listening to clients to see what kind of automation interest them. But if it's something that would take away the human aspect of the business entirely, then it's probably not something we want. Automatically alerting someone for, say, rebooking, is not necessarily a bad idea. There are plenty of things that do that out there today. But having that human element to actually fix the problem is always going to be a part of what we do.

Aside from automation, what other industry trends are you hearing about from clients?

Ancillaries are certainly the most confusing. It's gotten even worse now because it's not just ancillaries anymore. Now airlines are re-bundling.

If you're looking at Spirit or Frontier on a domestic flight, they're bundling offers. Then you try to compare those offers to United and you see basic economy or regular economy. What matches up? We’re trying to demystify that for people.

In general, people are just looking for us to tell them what's going to be the best option. Especially in the premium category, where the on-board product could be so different. We can say, "Look, if you're going to Asia in business class, what do you care about? Because if you care about the seat, and you don't care about anything else, go fly China Southern. They’re cheap and they have a great seat on their transpacific aircraft. That's fine. China Eastern, same thing. But you're not going to get the best meals, the best service, any of that. Do you care about all that? Well, okay go fly Singapore, Cathay, or someone else, whatever it might be."

Do you see an end or an easing to the complexity associated with air travel?

It's only going to get worse. You think about coach, and you have basic economy. We don't have basic business yet, but it's probably going to come. For example, Spirit has the “Big Front Seat.” It's a first class seat with nothing else different from coach. That's a great value. I would love to see that on a lot of other airplanes.

Eventually, the airlines might get there if they can find a way to not cannibalize their existing offerings. More and more of them have a true premium economy cabin. How does that differ from “extra legroom?” Some people don't even know.

That's not a surprise because, at least domestically, airlines had extra legroom long before they ever had true premium economy. It's madness, and I think it's probably going worse. Technology may catch up, but in the meantime, we're just going to keep providing our human service.