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Posts Tagged ‘Passengers’

‘Disruption’ has become a highly accepted concept in business and management, an event one can only expect to happen at some point in time, whether in production, marketing, distribution and retail, or in other functions of business. Disruptive innovation, mostly technological and digital, can be helpful in fixing market weaknesses due to lack of progress in methods and processes applied by ‘legacy’ companies; operational inefficiencies; and insufficient competition in a market. A disruptive innovator may also succeed by capturing consumer needs hidden or left ignored by existing complacent competitors. But disruptive innovation is not a magical cure; actually, it tends to be quite a radical form of cure. Innovations of this kind have the potential to destabilise a market, create disorder and confusion, and cause dysfunction if the transformation is spiralling out of control, a matter of real concern to all parties involved.

Disruptive innovations have been introduced in various industries or categories of products and services. It often occurs when a technological company imports a method or a tool developed in the hi-tech community into a specific product or service category, whose agents (e.g., providers, customers) are mostly unaccustomed and unready for. Yet the innovation can hit roots if it meets a large enough group of innovative or tech-orientated consumers who welcome the new solution (e.g., a way of acquiring or using a service). Thereafter, incumbent competitors find themselves obligated to adopt, if capable, similar or comparable methods or tools in their own operations. High-profile examples include: (a) Uber that expanded the concept of taxi-rides and ridesharing; (b) Airbnb that disrupted the field of hospitality and short-term lodging (‘home-sharing’ vs. hotels and guest houses); (c) Netflix that altered the habits of television viewing. Also, companies in a new sector of financial technology (‘fintech’) offer digital tools (mobile app-based) for consumers to manage their banking accounts, budgets and investments, challenging ‘legacy’ banks and financial service providers.

Certain technological innovations turn out, however, to be disruptive across-the-board. For instance, online social media networks and digital marketing methods (reliant on Big Data and analytic techniques) have been influencing dramatically how companies approach customers and interact with them in many product and service categories (beyond technological goods or information and communication technology services). Furthermore, developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics promise to introduce even more significant changes, from manufacturing to marketing and retail, and in the functioning of various products (e.g., smart home appliances and devices, the ‘upcoming’ driverless car).

Much damage may be caused if the innovative alternative solution is incomplete or the planning of its implementation is flawed. Overall, everyone should be prepared for a turbulent period of resistance, adjustment and adaptation that may extend until the ‘new-way-of-doing-things’ is assimilated in the market, or rejected. The story of an episode regarding taxi transportation at the international airport near Tel-Aviv exposes how wrongful introduction of a disruptive innovation in this service domain can lead to blunder and service failure. Mistakes made because of flawed planning in a highly sensitive process of market transformation may turn the disruption into a mess-up instead of improvement of the service.

The management of the Israel Airport Authority (IAA) launched earlier this year (2017) a new bid for taxi service operators to ride passengers into and from Tel-Aviv (Ben-Gurion) International Airport. In the end of May the 10-year permit of the primary taxi company licensed to provide service in terminals at the airport expired; the IAA wanted to open the service to competition in expectation that it will lead to fare reduction and perhaps other improvements (e.g., availability, time keeping of taxi journeys).

  • The competition is concentrated in fact on picking-up passengers from the airport; if prohibited, taxi cars will have to return empty after dropping off their former passengers at the flight departure terminal. A primary taxi company was given the advantage.
  • Note: Shuttle or minibus service providers are allowed in addition to take passengers  to more distant cities like Jerusalem and Haifa.

Only two companies responded and participated in the bid: the incumbent service provider (“Hadar-Lod”) and the mobile app company Gett that mediates taxi service. The veteran taxi company has been riding passengers to and from the airport for 40 years. It has definitely developed proficiency in riding air travellers over the years but there were also misgivings about its practices, linked to its status as mostly an exclusive taxi service for individual passengers (alone, family and friends). A few years ago the Ministry of Transport intervened by publishing and issuing a calculator of recommended fares to help passengers ensure they pay fair prices.

Gett (originally GetTaxi, founded in 2010) is managing a network connecting subscribed taxi drivers with passengers through its mobile app. The company is now operating in over 100 cities in four countries (Israel, United States, United Kingdom, Russia). The location-based app facilitates matching between a passenger and a driver, from service ordering, through journey planning and pricing, and concluding with payment via Gett. Unlike Uber, Gett is working only with professional licensed taxi drivers and is not involved in supporting informal ridesharing journeys by unauthorised drivers (e.g., UberPop). The app of Gett is focused on benefits of convenience of ordering (no street hailing, no phone call), efficiency of matching through the network, and of course promising a lower journey cost.

Still, the company hires its subscribed taxi drivers but is not their employer — they divide the fare income between them to the will of Gett. The company is commending itself on its website for higher pay to drivers, in-app tips and 24/7 live support, motivated by the idea that if Gett treats drivers better, they will reciprocate by treating their riders better. However, the arrangement has repeatedly emerged as a source of friction. Gett has changed its name, removing ‘Taxi’ from the title, to allow for extending its brand into a variety of delivery services (e.g., food, parcels) to domestic and business clients.

  • Taxi cars of member drivers in Gett’s network are marked by a label with its logo on the car’s side. Taxi drivers that belong also to a traditional local taxi company (‘station’) may carry its small flag on top of the taxi. However, in recent months taxi cars can been seen more frequently in Tel-Aviv area carrying only a flag of Gett.

The absence of more traditional taxi companies from the bid could be the first sign of a problem. Those companies may have found it not worthwhile for them to commit to provide regular service at the airport. But as a replacement, Gett is not truly a ‘physical’ taxi company and has unique characteristics. It leaves the operation of taxi service by Gett open to much ambiguity. Drivers subscribed with Gett can ‘double’ by riding passengers either via Gett’s app or with a standard taxi meter installed in the car. Are traditional taxi companies ‘hiding’ behind drivers also associated with Gett? But if Gett had the permit, would it allow drivers in its network to take passengers also without its app? (i.e., leave money on the table from such journeys.) Yet, Gett’s drivers have to choose in advance in what periods they act as standard taxi drivers or as taxi drivers riding passengers on call from Gett’s app. This situation could lead to confusion: under what ‘hat’ are the drivers allowed to get in and out of the airport and at what time are they allowed to choose what type of passenger-customer to ride.

Furthermore, the service could be binding and unfairly restrictive for passengers who are not subscribed customers of Gett, especially when arriving from abroad. There could be several reasons for passengers to find themselves in an inferior position: Passengers may not have a mobile phone that supports software applications; they may not feel comfortable and skilled in using mobile apps; or passengers may not be confident in paying through a mobile app (e.g., prefer to pay taxis in cash). It may be hard to believe but such people do exist in our societies in different walks of life. It is also known that smartphone users are selective in the number and sources of apps they are willing to upload to their devices. It could be futile to try to force consumers to upload a particular app, but it would be especially unfair to require users to upload an app of Gett so they can be driven away from the airport. The IAA should have not allowed from start an outcome in which a company of the type of Gett becomes a single provider of taxi service at the airport, primarily for riding returning residents or visiting tourists (the latter may not even be aware of Gett beforehand). The ‘disruption’ would have actually become a distortion of service, leaving customers either with no substitute or with confusion and frustration.

But something else, awkward enough, happened. The two companies reached an agreement to bid a joint offer in which they committed to lower fares by 31% on average from the current price level. It is unclear who initiated the move, yet it is reasonable that Gett was about to offer a much lower price for taxi rides affordable by its model and platform, and probably the management of the Hadar-Lod taxi company was alerted and in order to secure its stay in business felt compelled to match such an offer or simply join hands with Gett. The drivers belonging to Hadar-Lod thought otherwise and started at the end of May a spontaneous strike. The two bidders tried to reach a new agreement but eventually the veteran company had to retreat. One cannot be certain that drivers with Gett would have co-operated — the new price level may have been affordable for Gett but not necessarily worth the ride for the drivers. Apparently, the recommended official price was already or about to go down 7%, and with the further reduction committed in the bid offer, the taxi fare would drop on average by 38%. One would have to work many more hours to fill the gap. The cut was too deep — it may have worked well for the companies and their management but could never work for the drivers. (Note: An explanation from a taxi driver with Gett helped to describe the situation above.)

  • Having taxis from both companies in service would have provided some remedy with a transportation solution for every type of customer-passenger. But a certain mechanism and a person to supervise would be needed to keep order on the taxi platform. For instance, travellers subscribed with Gett may schedule their ride while in the luggage hall, and there would be Gett taxis waiting ready to pick them up. One would have to make sure there are enough taxi cars available for the other passengers.

That bid is now cancelled. The IAA declared that it would soon publish a new bid, and until its results are known, any licensed taxi driver can arrive and leave the airport with passengers as long as they register with the IAA. Are the official recommended prices still in place? Who will regulate the operation and watch that taxi drivers respect consumer rights of their passengers? Who will supervise in particular the allocation of passengers to authorised taxis at the arrival terminal (i.e., dispatching)? Answers will have to be found on ground. It is no surprise that the new situation has been received with apprehension by consumers-travellers and taxi drivers alike.

Consumers will have to learn from experience or relatives and friends what are acceptable price ranges for rides into and from the airport, and form anew their references for a fair price and the highest (reservation) price they are willing to pay. They may also set a low price level under which the reduced price may be suspected as “too good to be true”. A discounted price by a single driver to attract passengers, which deviates too much from a ‘normal’ price, should alarm the customer-passenger that something could be wrong with the service, or else there is a logical reason for the reduction. For example, the taxi driver may suggest ridesharing a few arriving passengers to a common destination area in Tel-Aviv — some passengers may be happy to accept, but the terms must be stated in advance. It is unclear how long the interim period will last, but the notions about pricing described above may remain valid even afterwards in a new service regime.

Making changes like adding competition, and especially by involving a disruptive innovation in the service domain, can improve matters. However, the process must be handled with care and watched over to avoid the system from derailing during the transformation. In this case, the IAA could and should have planned and managed the bid and implementation of its plausible outcomes more wisely. At this time, there must be at least one traditional taxi service operator allowed in addition to an innovative service mediated by a company like Gett at the airport, and rules have to be set and respected. Rushing into any drastic and innovative transformation of service will not do good for its chances of success, just invoke confusion and resentment — sufficient time and support must be given for the customers-passengers and taxi drivers to accommodate and adapt to the new service settings at the international airport.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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Every once in a while air passengers are bound to suffer from disruptions to their travel plans because of strikes in airlines due to work disputes, primarily with their pilots. Disruptions mean they may get as bad as complete cancellation of planned and paid-for flights whereof passengers are left stranded in their home airport or in some foreign country (strikes mostly affect international flights). The painful outcome of those disputes and strikes is that everybody ends up bruised to some extent — the airlines and their management, employees, and obviously the passengers-customers — whether in the short-term or long-term, monetarily and non-monetarily.

The highest-profile strike of recent times relates most apparently to the German major airline Lufthansa. It is actually a dispute lingering since 2014, causing repeated waves of strikes by its pilots. But this blog article will focus more closely on another dispute and chain of strikes at the Israeli airline El Al because it has brought the airline too close to the brink of business collapse.  Incidentally, as in Lufthansa, this dispute is also going on-and-off since 2014.

Of course there have been strikes in other airlines (e.g., Air France, Korean Air, China Airlines [Taiwan]) but the disruptions at Lufthansa seem to surpass them all in scale. Most strikes, as in the cases listed above, are triggered by the pilots, and that is crucial because the whole operation of an airline depends on them, giving them a lot of power over the management and owners of the respective company. Moreover, the lives of so many people (passengers) are in the hands of the pilots, relying on their professional skills and resourcefulness. The hot public debate surrounding those strikes is usually whether the pilots are abusing that power or are they making justified claims towards their employers.

There are, nevertheless, other types of strikes, as in the case, for example, of British Airways where the latest dispute was called by cabin crew members, specifically those hired after 2010 in apparently worse terms than for their more veteran colleagues. The ensuing strike was particularly disturbing because it was declared on last Christmas and the following days running to New Year (a continued strike occurred in January 2017). But the strikes by pilots tend to differ from strikes by other airline employees in impact on the regular flight schedule and implications of the demands made.

  • Unfortunately for some passengers in Britain, that holidays strike at British Airways coincided with other sanctions by airport workers of a Swiss contractor. The article will refer later on to other sources of disruption to air travel versus strikes originated within the airlines.

The primary demand of the pilots of Lufthansa is for a pay rise at an annual average rate of 3.7% to be paid retroactively to 5,400 pilots over a period of five years since 2012. The pilots’ union claimed that their compensation has eroded with inflation due to a wage freeze, causing them “a significant loss of purchasing power”. Lufthansa offered a rise of 4.4% from now on to be paid in two installments and another one-off payment. Drastic disruptions to the airline’s flight schedule occurred most recently in November 2016 as no agreement was reached by that time.

On a single day starting the latest ‘wave’ on 23rd November Lufthansa had to cancel according to media reports around 900 flights, affecting about 100,000 passengers. That leg of the strike extended for four days, causing overall cancellation of nearly 2,800 flights, affecting 350,000 passengers. The strike resumed on 28th November for two more days, forcing the cancellation of 1,700 flights with around 180,000 passengers in total affected. It was planned to start with short-haul flights and then expand to include also long-haul ones. (Note: Only flights under the banner of Lufthansa were implicated, excluding  Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines and Swiss Airlines also owned by the  group). [Sources: The Guardian 23rd Nov.; Reuters 28th Nov. 2016.]

It is hard to put an exact figure on the financial damages from those strikes. Reports suggest that the airline’s cost accrued from each striking day runs in millions of euros; total cost to Lufthansa since 2014 is estimated at €500m. It is hoped the dispute is now coming to a close following arbitration; the airline agreed to a four-stage wage increase of 8.7% plus a one-off payment, awaiting final approval and confirmation.

The pilots in El Al have demands for pay rise and improvement of working conditions. The dispute over working conditions may tell even better how deep and bitter is the conflict between the pilots and the company’s management and owners. Two issues are most striking. First, the pilots complain of an unreasonable workload because the airline is adding too many flights to its schedule, including to new destinations, and which they cannot sustain — the pilots argue they risk arriving to flights too tired and unfit to perform them. The second issue concerns the terms of employment of pilots ages 65-67: Retirement age in Israel for men is currently 67 but recent global regulation (2014) determines that pilots of age 65 and above cannot fly passenger aircrafts. The last strike over the dispute as a whole took place in mid-November 2016. An initial agreement was almost signed when the second issue triggered an additional strike in the past month. To resolve the age gap El Al suggested the senior pilots will work as instructors and examiners and in other managerial jobs but their income will be reduced considerably. The pilots did not agree to this condition. Last week a draft agreement was signed that will hopefully put an end to the dispute and the annoying disruptions of flights — but no one yet is ready to assure passengers of no more surprises.

El Al’s passengers had to suffer from flight delays and cancellations during several strikes. Although there were not too many cancellations that El Al had to announce (certainly not anywhere near as many as for Lufthansa), the ‘surprise’ nature of disruption of normal schedule was hard to tolerate and resolve — pilots would simply inform El Al at the last minute that they are sick and cannot attend their flights. El Al would then struggle to find replacing pilots from within and outside the company, leading in the ‘fortunate’ cases to delays of up to 12 hours in flight departures and in worse cases to flight cancellations. This mode of action by the pilots threatens to destroy customer confidence in the service provider as disruption comes completely with no warning and no preparation — the passenger arrives to the gate for his or her flight, yet the pilot does not. El Al tried to hire other airlines to execute the flights in jeopardy, a reasonable reaction that angered pilots even more (they argued it was more of a routine by management to deliver flights added to the already-busy schedule). All this wrangling was fought on the back of passengers.

The pilots and the airline’s leadership were so embroiled in their dispute, publicly attacking each other with all sorts of allegations, that they may have not been able to see anymore how this conflict appears especially to customers, nor how it affects them. Of course each side apologised and claimed they cared dearly about the customers, but it became increasingly difficult to believe them. Some of the details that were revealed were rather bizarre and difficult to accept. For instance, the allegation that pilots are extending long-haul flights by up to an hour to exceed 12 hours (e.g., to North America) to gain a bonus. Or, the pilots’ requirement that they would return from long-haul flights in Business Class and be paid as if they carried out the return flight to Israel. These claims made it harder to support the pilots’ struggle.

The pilots were not doing too well in gaining the support of the consumer public. They have let their grudge with the employer to be targeted at passengers. For example, during a flight in last November from a European city to Tel-Aviv they refrained from talking to the passengers and giving them customary updates about flight progress, weather conditions and other information. The captain indeed gave a welcome message at the beginning of the flight but not at half-time or towards the end of the journey as in the normal conduct of rapport on El Al’s flights. Before landing there was only a standard recorded message. It has to be understood that the Israeli public holds the pilots at high esteem and credits them with making El Al one of the safest airlines globally. Hearing the voice of the captain or first officer giving their messages to passengers is an important part of the relationship — it goes beyond the information conveyed in carrying a voice of authority, reassuring and friendly. At the end of the flight, while passengers disembarked, the pilots also remained seated in their cockpit cabin, another irregular conduct. It is a sad mistake, just like a statement made on TV by the union’s representative in the last strike that El Al’s pilots “could not find the motivation” to attend their flights, an agitating statement and a poor display of disrespect.

However, the owners and senior management of El Al should not feel comfortable and content either about their performance.  It seems they were not listening close enough to warnings from pilots for months about the course of the company. El Al’s leadership has chosen an aggressive strategy of expansion at all cost in an effort to hold on in an open competition on airway routes. This expansion included addition of destinations, increasing the frequency of flights, and the launch of a low-cost subsidiary (“Up”). El Al is trying to do something it simply cannot — it cannot become Lufthansa and it cannot beat airlines like Ryanair or EasyJet. The airline’s leadership must re-consider  the range and number of its destinations with respect to its resources.

The alternative cost of the expansion is negligence of the quality of service on board its flights — over recent years the airline omitted benefits to passengers in Economy/Tourist Class such as drinks served (including personal servings of wine or beer), free Israeli newspapers on flights home, and failing to upgrade their entertainment systems on airplanes in medium-range flights (3+ hours). Creating tourist sub-classes nowadays from standard to premium may start to correct the existing deficiencies. El Al must re-instate a realistic focus on quality of service and regain a competitive advantage on assets it can support — service onboard in addition to security and safety.

Flight disruptions may result from events other than a strike at the airline: take for example terrorist attacks or threats, strikes of airport workers, and phenomena of nature such as heavy snow or the event of volcanic ash clouds created by the eruption in Iceland in 2010. Yet, on these occasions an airline can justifiably claim to be upset by a “superior force” not in its control. It does not have that kind of protection when the disruption originates within its organization. Travel customers purchase their flight tickets from the airline and hence they least expect the airline to be the source of disruption. Besides the legal terms, there is a contract of the airline’s brand with its customers to be consistent and reliable in serving them and providing them value for their money. That is also the essence of keeping a brand’s promise.

Passengers endure different types of cost due to a flight disruption, foremost in the case of outright cancellation: financial losses (e.g., flight fare itself if cancelled, continued flights missed, ground services in the destination country such as lodging and transportation, and business-related damages when applicable), inconvenience of making new travel arrangements or cancellations, and the anguish of going through the ordeal. In some cases being stranded in a foreign country may cause greater costs than if being still in the home country. Beyond the bad experience of dealing with the disruption itself, one should not underestimate additional less direct costs: (a) putting off the excitement of anticipation before leaving on a vacation or for a special event, causing deep disappointment and frustration; (b) spoiling the enjoyment of a trip at its end on return home, causing anger and sadness (happy or unhappy memories of an experience are affected by its peak-moment, up or down, and its ending).

The disruptions in El Al because of the pilots’ strikes may have not been as severe as in other large airlines, particularly in Lufthansa, but the dispute threatened to have  much more severe consequences for the airline:

  • First, because something basic in the trust and confidence of Israeli consumers in El Al, which is essential for its survival, was in critical danger of being broken.
  • Second, El Al does not have the financial backing of a company like Lufthansa and probably other “big players” and cannot tolerate the same level of losses and damages to its brand stature.
  • Third, El Al allowed the dispute to build-up with increasing animosity and disruptions until it was very close to a tipping-point of collapse — pilots in charge of divisions of its aircraft fleet have officially resigned and the final trigger would have been resignation of El Al’s chief pilot. Was it necessary to threaten to fire the last fatal bullet?

The Israeli public still perceives El Al as its national airline although it is now in private ownership.  All stakeholders within the organization should bear that responsibility and share the interest to act carefully and cleverly to maintain that position. It is highly important for preserving the loyalty of their core target segment of Israeli consumers, but no less vital, remaining a preferred airline for Jews around the world. This strength, and further measures of improved business focus, can also increase its attractiveness to any tourists visiting Israel for flying El Al.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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An inspection of the mobile app-based services run by companies like Uber, Gett (formerly GetTaxi), Lyft or Hailo raises important issues about the distinction between taxi and non-taxi ridesharing transportation for individuals. Developments of the past two years seem to have broken the boundaries of driving-for-pay. A utility that started as an option for hailing licensed taxis by a mobile app is turning into an unruly “business” of private drivers. Uber in particular is the source of disruption in the ‘private transport’ sector that is causing much public controversy and protest by professional drivers.

The convenience in hailing a taxi using a mobile app when needed from anywhere a passenger may be in town, instead of hand-hailing in the street until a free taxi shows up is clear and undisputable. Through technology a taxi driver in vicinity is notified and can arrive without further human briefing to the passenger to pick him or her up for the ride — it can save precious time and nervous waiting. It may also help drivers reduce wasted time and fuel whilst wandering between “jobs” until a new customer is found. The applications in market were aimed originally to connect between consumers-passengers and drivers of taxis, black cabs and limousines.

A crucial aspect to notice about those mobile e-hailing applications is that they allow drivers to take customers independently of a present employer or a fleet they may belong to. Briefly, an app of this type incorporates geo-location, reservation management and credit payment functionalities so that a driver is related only with a passenger on one side and the technology company operating the app on the other side. No cash is actually passing between the three parties involved. This arrangement soon proved to have a potential to involve a larger variety of employed and non-employed, trade-licensed and non-licensed drivers.

For taxi companies or syndicates the problem is twofold. Professional drivers often depend on local fleet operators for their license, car and livelihood because of the companies’ strong influence over issuance of new taxi licenses. A license and an authorised (properly marked) taxi vehicle are harder to get without affiliation to a fleet. The new app utility may open a window for changing the balance of power between companies and upset professional drivers. Furthermore, affiliated taxi drivers may occasionally take passengers reached via the mobile app without going through the fleet, and perhaps even without notifying the dispatcher. The fleet operator risks here a loss of control, authority and income (grabbed instead by the tech company — Uber for example collects 20% of the fare).

Some co-operation between the mobile technology companies and local taxi operators and associations may still exist (e.g., authorised taxi vehicles in Israel can be seen carrying a sticker of GetTaxi) but that is less likely now, especially after Uber expanded the scope of drivers it would work with. That is, Uber opened the gate for private drivers, anyone who has a driving license and a car, to provide “private ridesharing” transportation. Subsequently, frictions with taxi fleet operators have expanded into hostile struggles with unions and professional associations of taxi drivers as well as city and state authorities.

Uber, Gett, Lyft, Hailo, and others similar to them, are designated as transportation network companies ; the networks are constructed, accessed and managed by means of mobile applications. The challenge mounted primarily by Uber is the expansion of the network to allow non-formal drivers to transport other passengers in their private cars for payment. The schemes of Uber for this “ridesharing” portion of their network are known in different countries as UberX, UberPop or UberPool. However, the descriptive title of ‘ridesharing’ for this activity is contentious.

Many probably know car-pooling from their time in college or university: students group together to transport to or from campus in the car of one of the group members and share the cost of fuel between them. Frequently the participants are friends or acquaintances (e.g., classmates, sharing the rental of a house) but at the very least they are connected by affiliation to the same institution. Due to rise in cost of fuel, traffic congestion and air pollution, car-pooling has become more prevalent also among working peers employed in the same organization (as among colleagues whose work is in City A and live in City B). We may see another form of saving on transportation by a small group of people who rideshare a taxi (e.g., for an evening out at a restaurant or on the way back home, dropping each at a separate address). These are usually voluntary and informal arrangements where people related to some degree either ride in the car of one of the group members or hire together a taxi with a professional driver. Uber tries to emulate both and yet enables none of these arrangements.

The term ‘ridesharing’ seems rather ambiguous the way Uber claims to implement it. Uber, Lyft, and others like them, present themselves as platforms for “peer-to-peer transportation”, not as passenger services. But who are the peers when ridesharing with Uber’s schemes mentioned above? There is no guarantee that the driver and passenger are “peers” or acquaintances of any kind nor is there any requirement that a group of people “share” the ride with Uber’s driver. The driver is not formally required to have the same destination as the passenger nor does the passenger’s destination need to be on the driver’s route anywhere else. In real terms, passengers are actually hiring a driver known to them only via the mobile app with none of the assurances that normally accompany the hiring of a licensed taxi driver. Administrative and legal authorities in various countries noticed that this operation occurs in grey area and started to suspend or ban such questionable schemes by Uber in different cities or countries.

  • Given the capital Uber has raised thus far it is valued as of May 2015 at $40bn. Uber operates in more than 250 cities in nearly 60 countries, though in some locations part of its activity is suspended due to legal disputes.

In the Netherlands Uber tried to argue that its UberPop scheme is a car-pool service as opposed to a taxi service. However, the Trade and Industry Appeal Tribunal in the country rejected this defence claim because it failed the legal requirement of taxi drivers to have a special license. The ruling on 8th December 2014 determined that “drivers who transport people for payment without a license are breaking the law“. UberPop was also banned a day after by a court judge in Spain because drivers lacked official authorisation to offer driving services. It should be noted that the cost of the ride is not estimated and agreed by the co-passengers with the driver to share but it is a fare determined by a third-party tech company. Moreover, people in a private, non-formal arrangement also usually do not deal with each other by credit cards. The claim of Uber sounds naive and unrealistic or simply a case of pretence.

By the end of 2014 Uber was dealing with additional legal restrictions and bans from the US (e.g., Portland, Orgeon; Nevada; and even in Uber’s hometown San-Francisco) and Canada (Toronto), through Europe (e.g., Paris, France; Berlin and Hamburg in Germany) to India (New Delhi) and Thailand in Asia. A map chart by The Telegraph depicts all the places where Uber is operating and where its activity has been banned or curtailed. The UberPop service is currently under scrutiny in Paris for failing a law passed late last year that regulates the services of chauffeured cars vis-à-vis taxis; Uber’s office in Paris was raided by police in March, confiscating mobile phones and documents (*).

In face of the rising criticism in Europe Uber adamantly argues that it is a technology company, not a transport company; thereby it does not own the vehicles nor hire any of the drivers who engage in its schemes, including UberPop. In the view of Uber, its mobile technological platform only helps in mediating between the drivers and passengers. Yet the European Commission is not hurrying to accept this argument, underlying Uber’s own complaints that national laws in Europe unjustly constrain its competition with taxi services. Uber may not directly transport people but its digital platform has an impact on transportation, a spokesperson for the EC commented in response. Indeed, can Uber defend itself as merely a technology company without taking any responsibility for the effects of its mobile app’s activity on the physical transportation services?  This matter is now under examination by the EC as part of an overall study of the taxi and chauffeur service industry.


The brand (corporate-root) name “Uber” (originally Über in German) is problematic on two counts. The company transmits through its name that it owns a superior transportation network. First, it is an arrogant claim that may be perceived as provocative particularly by licensed taxi drivers for being contested by Uber’s network of private drivers who operate above them and the rules of transportation service that confine them. Second, the name is quite insensitive because of the associations it may bring to mind that carry a strong negative connotation from the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, the attempt of Uber to justify themselves as only a technology company not responsible for the operation of transportation itself alerts one to think that the company is not inasmuch “Über Alles” (above all) as it is “Über Chuchem” (over-smart in Yiddish). The choice of name was not clever. It is already wide-spread around the world, but the name is tainted and may levy a price in future.

Uber and competing technology companies succeeded in introducing alternative private transport solutions for a reason: consumers who have become too frequently unsatisfied and even frustrated with the service delivered by licensed taxi drivers were open to the new type of “ridesharing” solutions. It may be triggered by complaints on low in-time availability, high cost and lack of reliability (e.g., not taking a shorter route, attempt to evade turning-on the taxi-meter). Sometimes it could be a feeling that the driver did not feel obliged enough to be kind to the passenger. Surely, many taxi drivers are honest, reliable and friendly, but the image of their service is tarnished by those who are less so. Obviously. the use of an e-hailing app is only part of the story here.

The main goal is protecting the quality and safety of taxi rides and other private chauffeur transport services. The business model offered by Uber is threatening to cause more damage than improve the situation — one cannot let these services be operated without oversight by official professional transportation agencies. There are some major concerns to address: (a) assuring the driving qualifications of the private drivers (though seeing how some authorised taxi drivers behave on the road makes one wonder also about their qualifications and the traffic rules they abide to…); (b) approving the physical fitness of the private driver; or (c) certifying the technical fitness of the private car used. Uber has already been charged with not making proper checks on the drivers who join them. Uber, though not alone, cannot be left to set its own rules for drivers.

The issue of cost and how ride-fares are measured is receiving special attention. Uber in particular has been charged with surge pricing (i.e., enacting a higher rate at peak hours when taxis are more difficult to get), a conduct other companies distance themselves from. More generally, the GPS-based assessment of fares is a subject of debate — is it accurate enough and can it be allowed in place of approved taxi-meters? According to Transport for London (TfL), fare calculations on smartphones are sufficiently divergent from taxi-meters’ for smartphones not to constitute a conventional metering equipment. Cab drivers in London went on strike to protest to TfL the special status of Uber, yet in a strange twist this stand may be used to protect Uber as a non-taxi service — TfL promised to investigate and resolve the conundrum. The fares at Uber are normally 15-20% lower than with licensed taxis. Passengers have to trade-off the expected saving against uncertain outcomes (e.g., reliability, safety) when riding with unauthorised private drivers. The decision may be different however if drivers applying Uber’s app were approved by official agencies.

A complex problem developed in multiple countries and is going to be difficult to sort out. In the short-term, taxi associations may collectively set-up or continue contracts with local mobile technology companies for operating sponsored e-hailing apps and guarantee 5-10% discounts to their users-passengers. In the long-term, it will be necessary to amend wounded relations between taxi drivers and consumers, and to consider if and how to accommodate different classes of authorised-licensed drivers, all kept under oversight of official professional agencies. Meanwhile, the mobile tech companies who probably sense the difficulties in the transport sector are already looking for new frontiers, to expand the use of their apps in other services (e.g., deliveries).

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

(*) Uber Gets Reprieve in Paris in Fight on Low-Cost Service, International New-York Times (with Reuters), 1 April 2015.

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On Friday evening of 13th January the cruise ship Costa Concordia smashed against the rocks of Isola Giglio in Italian waters, tilted to its side and capsized. Suspicions were soon raised rather unexpectedly blaming this tragic accident on grave misconduct of the captain of the ship. The recording of conversations between the officer of the Italian Coast Guard and  captain Francesco Schettino, fleeing from the ship, are most disturbing. Allegations running against the captain are highly discomforting, ranging from negligence, poor judgement, and to outright disregard for the lives of his passengers and crew.

The Costa Concordia carried about 3,200 passengers and a thousand (1,000) crew members. Seventeen (17) victims who lost their lives are confirmed at the time of writing this post, and there are still 15 people missing. Fortunately enough, since the massive cruise ship landed in a spot where water is not so deep, the ship did not sink completely and the vast majority of people on board could escape by swimming or be evacuated safely to the shores of Toscana. Giving full tribute to Concordia’s victims, we should be thankful that this disaster did not end worse and that so many of the people on board are survivors.

The cruise ship belonged to the company Costa Cruises, an Italian subsidiary of British-American Carnival Corporation.  It was built together with six ship-sisters in the previous decade in the same shipyard in Italy. Concordia, inaugurated in 2006, was the largest and most glamorous of them all. It was Costa’s flag-ship, literally.  At first the company faced fears that the cause of accident could be a technical or physical failure of some sort. This would mean that all sisters of Concordia would have to be grounded. If the failure could not be repaired, it was speculated, financial losses would be immense. Seniors at the company may be relieved now that this is not the case, but instead they will have to bear the shame and embarrassment from the alleged behaviour of their ship captain and the public anger targeted against them, with all their potential negative consequences.

According to a statement issued by the company on 15th January and posted on their website (1), Schettino joined Costa Cruises in 2002 as a safety officer and was appointed captain in 2006. It is not yet clear what has led captain Schettino to manoeuver the ship so irresponsibly: was it to impress one of his officers, to “show-off” to a female friend, or just being negligent? However, it is already difficult to comprehend the captain’s behaviour after the accident had occurred. Apparently the captain understood he has done wrong and became more concerned about not being caught by the Italian authorities than helping in safeguarding the lives of his passengers and crew. Another account by an officer on bridge suggests Schettino was merely panicking (2). Most bizarre are the excuses ‘il capitano’ has given the Coast Guard’s officer about his whereabouts, suggesting for instance that he “fell off” from the ship’s deck and right into a lifeboat below the ship. According to the transcript of the conversation, it is implied that at some point he was actually already some distance away from the ship nearing the coast and was ordered to return to the site of accident. This conduct of Schettino after the accident may have an even stronger negative impact on travelers’ attitudes than his conduct leading to the accident.

There is an aspect in the chain of events on the night of the accident that passengers were not prepared for; while many passengers were probably not aware of the behaviour of the captain in a situation that was hard already for them, this was revealled soon in the aftermath of the accident. Thereby it created much rage among passengers and the public. Let us look more closely at this aspect.

People tend to underestimate the probability of negative events like fires or fatal car accidents that might occur to them. When going on a cruise, passengers may take into consideration that the ship could be caught in a gusty storm or strike a rock but they try to weigh down these scenarios. But just in case, most travellers take a travel insurance. This human approach generally allows us to take actions like going on vacation without worrying too much about negative contingencies. However, tourists who are over-confident in their skills (e.g., swimming, skiing) or their judgement (i.e., assessing certain events so unlikely that they can be ignored, strongly holding a belief that “it will not happen to me”), they are susceptible of behaving recklessly or foolishly, and they may also choose not to take a travel insurance.

Yet, passengers of the Costa Concordia have found out that someting happened on the night of accident that their usual mechanisms of self-protection could not help them in this case — a breach of trust by the captain responsible for their safety in sea. The alleged role of the captain in causing the accident by acting unprofessionally and with disrespect to his usual duties as captain of a cruise ship means that this accident was completely avoidable. It is hardly conceivable by passengers that the captain will be directly involved in causing an accident on a ship of the scale of Concordia. Primarily, the conduct of captain Schettino abandoning the ship, leaving behind his passengers and crew, stands against the norm and commonplace belief that the captain always stays last on board to orchestrate rescue operations even at the risk of his own life, as famously did Edward John Smith, of the Titanic in 1912.

The Greater the Unpleasant Surprise, the Stronger Negative Impact on Travellers Expected

The surprise evoked by the circumstances surrounding the accident, shaking-up of strong beliefs about the responsibility of the captain and his senior officers for the well-being of passengers, and the eventual breach of trust are the kind of factors likely to have a specially strong effect on travelers’ attitudes and behaviour. Tourists are likely to feel more vulnerable. They will start questioning the confidence they have put in this cruising company and its senior officers, which may easily spill to other cruisers. The stressing situation may further evoke emotions of frustration and anger. It is difficult to predict for how long these negative effects will prevail but they can very well hurt the tourist industry, particularly in leisure cruises, for the next couple of years.

Was it actually a freak incident in the behaviour of Schettino? Was his conduct on this occasion in complete contradiction to his previous behaviour as captain that the company’s management could not suspect him to fail so badly in his last cruise? These are heavy-weight questions that investigators of the accident will probably address. It is yet pre-mature to doubt the decision of Costa Cruises to hire him in the first place or appoint him to be captain. It also is too easy to find signs of misconduct in hindsight (e.g., “the captain was partying”), because “early signs” receive greater attention, appearing more obvious after the event. Nevertheless, investigators will have to enquire if there were any signs ignored by Schettino’s superiors which should have increased their scrutiny regarding his performance as captain. Prosecuters in Italy intend to charge captain Schettino with multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning the ship before all passengers and crew evacuated (2).

The Costa Cruises company (and the mother-company Carnival Corp.) already has to bear the loss of its ship Costa Concordia, and in the short to mid-term it can expect to face multiple law suits and pay compensation to passengers and their families and cover the cost of removing the ship wreck from water. Last Friday (30th January) the company reached an agreement with a coalition of consumer groups that it will pay €11,000 to each passenger on top of refund for the cruise cost, medical and transportation expenses (3); but nothing is final as some passenger groups already express discontent. Furthermore, concerns have been raised of environmental damages to the sea and coast that the company will have to help and fix or compensate Italy for them. After that, the company is likely to face economic losses in the mid- to long-term because of tourists’ reluctance to travel with them again. Costa Cruises is going to remember captain Schettino for a very long time.

Italians are also going to remember their native Schettino for many years as an infamous captain. It looks like the last thing Italy needed at this time. He has potentially caused a blast to their tourist industry when their economy needs mostly a boost. The Italians have every reason to be angry with him. Most surely, he will not be forgiven for a very long time for embarrassing Italy so badly.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Statements issued by Costa Cruises associated with the Concordia’s accident: http://www.costacruise.com/B2C/USA/Info/concordia_statement.htm

(2) “Costa Concordia Captain ‘Distracted by Guests on Bridge’,” The Guardian Online, 23 January 2012  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/23/costa-concordia-captain-distracted-guests

(3) “Costa Concordia Company Offers Passengers Compensation,” BBC News Online, 29 January 2012.   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16754771

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