I was recently on a coast-to-coast @UnitedAirlines flight where an older man in his mid 80s who was sitting a few rows behind first class needed to use the bathroom but the drink cart prevented him from walking to the back of the airplane. So he walked into first class to use the bathroom. A flight attendant turned him away.
I was shocked.
When I googled the topic it didn't surprise me to find plenty of similar stories. Here is one I read on an online travel site:
"Sunday night, on American Airlines, I watched a flight attendant rush to stop an elderly gentleman (who was sitting directly behind First Class), and send him allllllll the way to the back of the plane to stand behind 8 people to use THAT bathroom. Several people in First Class smiled or gave a thumbs up to the flight attendant."
I'm not sure what shocked me more. The story or the user comments such as "You get what you pay for. When someone pays 10-20x more for a ticket, they should have their own bathroom. Plus, once the old man gets to use it, others inevitably will try to bend the rules."
That 85 year-old man likely fought wars to preserve the freedoms the young stewardess enjoys - the same stewardess who denied the man access to the bathroom. I felt so bad for the man. And I felt tremendous anger toward the airline.
But I realized that my anger toward the airline was an emotional response to a policy I did not agree with. Yet, the airlines have every right to have such a policy.
But it's a bad policy that reveals just how ill prepared most businesses are for the changing demographics of this country.
Here are some facts about the aging population (in the USA):
- The older population--persons 65 years or older--numbered 39.6 million in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available). This is about 13% of the U.S. population - roughly one in every eight Americans.
- By 2030, the older population--persons 65 years or older--will number about 72.1 million older persons (more than twice their number in 2000). This will be about 19% of the U.S. population.
Lets assume an airplane has 200 passengers on board. If the demographics of the passengers matches the USA then by 2030 we can expect that nearly 40 "coach" passengers will be over the age of 65. And many will have some sort of physical limitations. And some will have some sort of bladder control issues (10% of people over 65 do). So clearly the airlines will have to adapt to the needs of what is going to be an important customer base - older passengers.
I'm not alone in recognizing this marketing fact. Here is what Stephen Shaw had to say about this topic in his book Airline Marketing and Management:
"Clearly, the product that airlines offer will have to evolve, with more provision being made for disabled passengers and those needing help at airports. In terms of subtler changes, the travel industry may have to adjust its promotional policies. In advertising to promote leisure travel, the industry still focusses on images of fun-loving younger people……."
Even airports need to adapt - from changing the physical layout of airports (you can't expect a 65+ year old to run to a gate a mile away on a short layover) to providing more accommodating procedures and seating at security screenings (e.g., more benches where people can sit down to remove and put on their shoes).
And it is not just the travel industry.
It is very clear to me is how unprepared most businesses are - especially services businesses - for the growth of the aging population.
Every industry needs to adapt to the needs of older customers - from product design to customer service (patience). Not doing so will alienate this important (and large) customer group and result in significant lost revenue.
On the flip side, businesses that start NOW to accommodate this demographic group will reap the rewards and gain a competitive advantage. And those that delay will find themselves falling further and further behind.