So Long Midwest… We knew you when…

It is funny that I should be reading Seth Godin’s “Linchpin” while flying to Washington DC on Midwest Airlines recently. I was reading the chapter titled “Indoctrination: How we got here” and could not help to think how Midwest Airlines has slid from what was an outstanding airline to one where there is a sameness and conformity with many other airlines.

Twenty years ago when I started flying Midwest Express as it was then known, the planes were luxurious with first class seating throughout the plane; Four-across wide seats with plenty of leg room. Meals were real food, too and served on china with metal silverware. During the noon and evening service, the flight attendants asked, “red or white wine with your meal.” I recall champagne available any time after lunch. I used to enjoy having Midwest’s signature chocolate chip cookies with a glass of champagne on the night flights returning home. If you wanted a soft drink, you got the entire can. Snacks were never the peanuts of other airlines, always something more. These were not extras; it was included in the base airfare.

Typically, there were three flight attendants on every flight for 80 passengers. Outstanding service was a hallmark of the Midwest brand. And, they offered warm chocolate chip cookies.

Sure, I paid a bit more for the ticket, but the extra room seating was worth the price alone, not to mention all the extras, such as fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.

Then things changed, 911 happened and Midwest like all the other airlines began a tailspin. This one took years. The brand promise that was Midwest, began to change. Gone went the wine, champagne, and silverware. Next the free meals. As time progressed, Midwest added super saver fare with planes traveling to tourist destinations with narrow seats and less leg room. Some flights still had the signature seating. Still, they offered warm chocolate chip cookies.

Service also declined as the crews cut down to two flight attendants. Meals, still better than other airlines and I often figured if I had to eat either on the airplane or at the airport, Midwest had better food for the value. If I did not purchase a meal, I would get a decent snack. Still, they offered warm chocolate chip cookies.

Midwest then followed the other airlines, like a herd of sheep, charging for meals, reducing the quality and charging for checked bags. With Republic’s acquisition, snacks have vanished. Still, they offered chocolate chip cookies.

I cannot help but wonder if Midwest had maintained its original brand promise of luxurious seating and meals with all the trimmings, that they could have survived and grown in a niche no other airline flew? Sure, the ticket price would have been higher, but it certainly would have been a differentiator. There is a value in charging more. The perceived value associated with a higher price is proven repeatedly with brands like Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, or Apple. Even items and shops without high investments such as Georgetown Cupcakes, Starbucks, or Fossil, show that higher price provide a differentiator to the buyer.

Mercedes-Benz is still a car, it does the same thing as a Chevy getting you from point A to point B. Volvo has the safety niche cornered. Starbucks offers a cup of coffee at a premium, while you could get a good cup of coffee at a McDonald’s as well.

So domestically, there are two airlines niches now. Southwest and Jet Blue have cornered the value segment. The others offer a sameness or commodity that no longer separates them from the rest of the pack.

On a trip last November to New York City, which was after the Republic buyout of Midwest, the flight back departing from Newark to Milwaukee was on a Midwest Connect flight in one of the worst airplanes I have ever flew; cramped uncomfortable seats for a 2-hour flight to Milwaukee. Now I have been on some Midwest Connect flights when Skyway was the carrier and the seating was not as bad as on that flight – even the Beachcraft Turbo prop planes were roomier and more comfortable.

Then on my recent direct flight out to DC from Omaha, the attendant mentioned what breakfast and snack items would be available, but when coming around the 2-1/2 hour flight, never offered anything except a drink (no different on my return flight). Mine was coffee with non-dairy creamer, in place of half-and-half. Never once was I asked if I wanted a refill. No snack offered either. The seats my wife and I were assigned were A and B, but B did not exist on the plane (seats were A, C, D, F). On my return flight, we were assigned Seats A and C, which turned out another ticketing snafu since some passengers were assigned to seats E and F which did not exist on the plane (seats were A, B, C, and D).

I think it is humorous that in the May/June issue of the in-flight magazine “My Midwest” the message from Bryan Bedford, Republic Chairman, talks about how the two brands Frontier and Midwest will be merging into one under the Frontier Brand. Yet he says, “…we are not abandoning the Midwest brand promise…” I hate to say, the brand promise of Midwest has long disappeared. All that remains of the Midwest brand promise, the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies…and then again, there were no cookies on my last flight back to Omaha. Farewell to the cookie.

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