Australia's flag carrier Qantas last week announced it will cut 5,000 jobs, ground planes, quit unprofitable routes, stop expansion of its budget offshoots and, in all likelihood try to replace its little sachets of peanuts with something cheaper.
The airline blamed legislation, market conditions, foreign governments and just about anything else short of a sudden unexplained degradation of Bernoulli's principle for its ills.
It didn't mention mobile devices, but it should have done so.
Here's why. On routes that have plenty of competition, airlines have generally marketed themselves either as the patriotic choice, a safe choice, or the more comfortable alternative.
Patriotism has gone out the door for most people, largely because every dollar saved on airfares is a dollar that can be spent on croissants in Paris or hot dogs at Disneyland. Safety is hard to compete on these days because global regulations mean airlines that fly into well-policed spots like the USA or Europe are forced to get it right or they're not allowed in. And everyone has read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and knows their pilots have to be able to snap at New York air traffic controllers.
Comfort is now moot, because while avoiding brain death in the air used to require an investment by the airline, a great many flyers now possess devices that are capable of entertaining them for hours. Those devices often have larger screens than you'll find in a seat back. They also offer choice: if you've loaded up your mobile device with a season of Game of Thrones you know you'll get it in all its smutty, naked, glory rather than being forced to endure a de-fanged drudge.
That means it's now far more palatable to fly on a carrier that hasn't made big investments in passenger comfort, robbing travellers of a reason to consider full-service airlines like Qantas.
I know this works from first-hand experience. Last year I travelled on two long-haul budget airlines. Careful shepherding of battery life meant even my kids didn't mind the lower level of comfort.
At this point you may have two objections, one of which is that Qantas offers its passengers iPads on some flights. I've used 'em: there's not enough content on them that I would buy a Qantas ticket just because of the iPads.
“What about the food?” I hear you ask. To which I reply it's always dire unless you are at the pointy end of the plane. There's only so many ways to dish up protein chunks in sticky slurry and I'll happily put up with two or three meals worth of B-grade slurry if it means I have enough money to dine somewhere with a Michelin Star once I land.
Samsung, Apple and Google are therefore as big a problem for Qantas as all the other things that ail it and other legacy full-service flag carriers. The gadget-makers are a problem because they take away one of the few differentiators that still matters – the in-flight experience – and let you live in your own little bubble as airlines' jet-powered bubbles haul you through the skies. ®