James Moore: The failure's the same on the trains, the buses and the planes
Thursday 23 December 2010
Outlook Another day another report of transport misery brought about by the snow. And, amid a rising tide of criticism British Airways and BAA, the airports operator, are indulging in the time honoured tactic of blaming each other.
Perhaps the only surprise in the whole sorry affair is that it's taken them this long to trot out such a sorry old tactic.
There are two major problems with the transport industry. One is having quarterly results fixated private companies providing essential services that usually require long-term strategic thinking and lots of investment. That's not easy to fix given that it requires action from politicians with both vision and a degree of common sense (good luck).
The other problem – and it applies to the railways, the airlines and airports, and even bus and coach operators – is that those companies treat their customers not as valued commodities, but as an inconvenience.
The most egregious example of this is the way passengers have been kept on planes and warned that they will be arrested under terrorism laws if they attempt to disembark. Cue the cries of "it's the airlines fault" "it's the airport's fault". But there are plenty of others. How about the rail operating companies that, on busy commuter routes, cut the number of carriages on trains where passengers are already jammed in like sardines. Or the bus companies which shrug their shoulders when their drivers treat people with small children and prams with a quite astonishing level of rudeness.
All of these examples – and there are many others – stem from the same root cause. That is, a complete lack of any incentive to do better. The structure of each industry means it is the company, not the consumer, that holds the whip hand. If you don't like the treatment you get at Tesco, you can probably find a Sainsbury's nearby, or an Asda, or a Waitrose or a Morrisons. Although it is more difficult it is still possible to dump your bank if it treats you badly. It is even possible to find better service (I can testify to this from personal experience having dropped part of Lloyds in favour of Yorkshire Bank).
But with transport companies, this is all but impossible. You want to fly long haul? You're inevitably driven towards Heathrow, and you're very likely to end up with BA, which has more take-off and landing slots than anyone else. Consolidation among airlines (BA, Iberia, and American Airlines are soon to be either allied or one company) only makes this worse. As for the trains, unless you're very lucky you'll likely be stuck with one operator or the car. Which, if you happen to be travelling into London or many other metropolitan centres, is really no choice at all. Ditto buses.
This situation is not just annoying and frustrating (heartbreaking when you look at some of the stories from this month's disaster) it's bad for the economy and bad for business generally. Many foreign firms cite the shoddy transport infrastructure as one of reason for not coming here. But what can you do of you can't hit a company in the pocket? Shrug shoulders and say "mustn't grumble eh"?
Well, here's the interesting thing about public relations. Executives generally pay a close attention to their public image. They pay vast amounts of money to consultancies and advisers (and lawyers) to protect themselves (sometimes their companies) from criticism. So perhaps embarrassing them can work the oracle. Many of the companies in sectors mentioned above have annual meetings, and you only need a single share to attend and ask a question (they're usually good for a free lunch too). It might not bring about an immediate change (transport companies have proved to be stubbornly awful for a long time) but they do enable people to hold executives to account for their action or, more likely, inaction. Mustn't grumble? We need to start.
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