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John Nicholson

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America Needs A Five-Star Airline

Posted: 08/24/2012 7:00 am

The U.S. has historically led the way in the air travel sector, from the early days of rapid industry development following the Wright brothers' success at Kitty Hawk to air travel's glory days during the Pan Am era. But over the past two decades, America has fallen farther and father behind when it comes to the quality of commercial airline service. Today, instead of leading the industry or even treading water to keep up, east Asian and southwest Asian air carriers have bolted ahead of their Western competition by light years. By many accounts, several European carriers occupy the second tier of international airlines, leaving U.S. airlines in a distant third-tier. If American air carriers want to at least stay relevant, or better yet catch up, they first need to wake up, recognize the trends, dump the delusional corporate talking points, and fundamentally change the nature of the products and quality of the service they offer.

As a Diamond Medallion on Delta Air Lines, that airline's uber-elite frequent flier tier, I frequently find myself face-to-face with Delta's CEO, Richard Anderson, as he delivers a recorded greeting for passengers at the beginning of every flight's video safety presentation. Before each flight even takes off, passengers are remind of just how 20th century Delta Air Lines is via this dated and bland greeting from the company's chief executive. While Mr. Anderson and Delta's team of inside-the-box executives and marketers evidently thought that adding this short recorded message from the top was a net plus, I would venture to bet that the growing legions of ultra-savvy modern travelers, like me, see it instead as yet another reminder of just how old-school this airline's internal thinking -- and the external manifestation of that internal thinking - really is.

The problem with Mr. Anderson's attempt at being up close and personal with his passengers is similar to what has gone wrong with U.S. airlines generally -- the product seems to be a result of generic internally-generated notions of what customers today must like instead of being the outgrowth of a substantive consumer engagement process, true creative talent or revolutionary thinking. So what would be a better welcome message for Delta passengers than the monotonous voice of a dull CEO that could have been plucked straight from Central Casting's "generic corporate executive" actor database? Well, for starters just about anything; but to be more specific, any celebrity, even a "D-List" celebrity (NOT Kathy Griffin, though) would be better than Mr. Anderson. A sports star, a cartoon character, or even nobody would be better than what they currently have, or better yet a mix of all of the above. Surprise us! It does, after all, become quite annoying and frustrating to be forced to watch the same ill-conceived, boring video message on every single Delta flight.

Why harp on this one tiny aspect of one airline's customer experience? Because it's illustrative of the overall trend of poor product and service outputs by all major U.S. airlines. It's the tip of the iceberg, and by iceberg we're talking one the size of the entire continent of Antarctica. That's just one small example, but I could go on and on about how sub-par Delta's service is compared to their trendy international competition. So why not just fly another airline if you're unhappy with Delta's offerings, you ask? Well, internationally I certainly do most of the time. However, domestically we're stuck with only a few choices of air carriers who are allowed to monopolize the U.S. air travel market. And unfortunately, the level of service is indistinguishable among them all. If the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates, or Qatar Airways were allowed to operate domestic flights, I predict that they would shut down the likes of Delta, United, American, and US Airways in a heartbeat.

But what's so different about these international air carriers and why can't it be replicated here at home in the U.S.? That's an excellent question, and I think the primary answer is the standard of service they offer, which begins with the attitude of the company's employees. As any frequent international traveler can tell you, when you approach a ticket counter at one of these true five-star global airlines or when you board one of their aircraft, the attitude of the agents and crew is fundamentally different than the attitude of U.S. airline staff. While the latter are all too often preoccupied with personal conversations, checking text messages, and/or taking a defensive stance towards customers, the former are relaxed, pleasant, elegant, and always available to serve with a smile. And while many American airline staff are quite pleasant and do provide exceptional customer service too, the frequency of below-average service, in my experience and in the experience of most of my fellow jet-setting friends and associates, is far greater with domestic air carriers than with the above-named international carriers and many others.

American airline employees frequently cite the crap they have to put up with from passengers as an excuse for why they are always on the defensive, in a foul mood, or copping an attitude from time to time with their carrier's customers. I have no doubt that American travelers can dish out their fair share of unreasonableness, especially when dealing with the stress of air travel these days. But I don't think that there is anything unusual about the American air travel experience that isn't replicated across the globe. European, Arab, and Asian passengers get testy too, they make unreasonable demands, and they surely pull their fair share of frustrating stunts that airline staff could cite as an excuse for poor attitudes and poor service. But I still just do not see a trend of the agents and crews at these top-tier airlines abroad reacting or conducting themselves in the same ways. Instead, the trend outside of the U.S. is to respond with grace, poise, a smile, and a workable solution. And even when that workable solution isn't what the customer originally wanted, the first three qualities are usually enough to maintain a happy passenger and smooth sailing on to the next treasured customer and his myriad issues.

In sharing this constructive criticism, I am by no means indicting airline employees, although some on automatic defense may take this article as such no matter how many preemptive disclaimers I include. I've never been an airline employee, only a super-frequent customer and passenger of many airlines, both domestically and internationally. And I don't know whether the fault for trending sub-par service with U.S. air carriers lies with the attitude of employees or the culture and decisions propagated by senior management that result in those attitudes and the corresponding level of service. But as with most widespread and systemic problems, I strongly suspect there's enough responsibility to go around. I am just reporting what we customers are experiencing, and no amount of excuses can change the fact that we are indeed experiencing a significantly lower level of service on American air carriers than we experience on many international carriers with the same issues and challenges.

But all hope is not lost, and American companies have an incredible ability to bounce back from tough times and shoot to the top of an industry once again by fundamentally changing the way they do business, market their products, and serve their customers. Apple, anyone? There are literally hundreds of ideas and suggestions that could help improve U.S. air carriers' level of customer service, improve the air travel products they offer, and significantly boost their overall customer experience and corresponding level of satisfaction. But here is just a sampling of the type of solutions that U.S. airline executives need to start seriously considering if they ever hope to re-enter the top tier of global air carriers.

First, U.S. airlines need to start focusing on the customer. As simple as that seems, it is simply not done systemwide with any major U.S. airline, despite what the bland corporate taking points and public relations propaganda of each may emphatically declare. Even as one of Delta's most elite customers, I have never once been asked for feedback on their service in any substantive and meaningful way that has convinced me that it would actually be listed to or considered by someone with authority with in the company. And I certainly do have plenty of suggestions and advice to offer the open ear! But despite the extensive experience of frequent travelers on the consumer side of the airline industry, no airline employee has ever asked for any substantive feedback on my flying experience with them.

Note the emphasis on "substantive" above. Sure, I get a generic email survey after every few flights, but who seriously believes that those are anything but a pathetic attempt at passenger mollification themselves? Perhaps someone who spends tens of thousands of dollars on your airline (and others) each month for both myself and others would know a little something about what it would take to get me to spend more, or what it would take to make you my exclusive airline partner. However, this simple notion of substantive engagement of an airline's most valuable consumers seems to fly right over the heads of airline executives.

And focusing on the customer should involve more than just soliciting genuine feedback (in a genuine way!). All U.S. airlines could use a systemwide re-training in true first-rate customer service using the world's true top-tier airlines as a model to aspire to. Just because an airline has been around for 70 years does not mean that it can't stand to learn a whole lot from an airline that has only been around for 7 years.

In addition to employee behavior and etiquette, that may also mean allowing airline employees, especially on-board crew, to perform better by lightening their responsibility load so that the are better able to focus on customer experience with grace, poise, and a smile. The key is delivering a top-tier experience the overwhelming majority of the time (95-98%), not some of the time or even most of the time. All it takes to reverse the positive impression given by dozens of good employees is one or two other employees with an slight attitude or who are too busy discussing workplace issues to notice a passenger approaching the counter or still within earshot.

Second, air carriers need to fundamentally reform their loyalty programs. There's nothing more frustrating for a loyal frequent flier than to be stuck in a coach seat when they can see empty first and business class seats at the front of the plane. As someone who is the target of airlines' calculations about the likelihood of business travelers' willingness to pay for more expensive seats in first or business, I can assure you that the math here is flawed. Neither I nor my company is ever going to pay $5,000 for a plane ticket, but if you leave that extra seat in business class open because you were hoping that I would change my mind at the last minute, you're not only going to not earn the extra revenue by holding out but you're also going to cultivate a number of seething loyal customers who are sitting back in coach and thinking about that empty business class seat for their entire flight and beyond.

Another example of misguided loyalty program restrictions involves the fare classes that must be available for award ticket redemption. Passengers just don't understand how there can be plenty of seats open on a flight, even within a few days of departure, but not any seats open in the right fare class for redeeming award travel. Although airlines may have their own reasons for limiting award seat capacity, the mantra of "perception is reality" drives customer satisfaction and loyalty more than anything, and the perception that an airline is unreasonably restricting award travel availability breeds resentment among an otherwise loyal customer base.

Now this is not an example of something that foreign air carriers do that American carriers do not, but it is an example of a way in which American carriers can recover lost status and step out ahead of their international competition. If even one carrier did this domestically, they could also step out ahead of all of their fellow U.S. airline brethren and quickly become the an industry innovator and leader here at home. All it takes is one to break the mold, and the gratitude, loyalty, and business of zillions of savvy modern travelers is theirs for the taking.

Third, there is a lot more than airlines can do to improve the on-board experience for passengers, some of which may even save them some good money along the way. However, most of these improvements require a little outside-the-box creative thinking on the part of corporate bureaucracies that are not usually accustomed to such innovative thinking. For instance, Delta has experimented a little with sponsored product offerings on-board its flights and in its SkyClubs. Lately I have consistently found promotional boxes of men's grooming products in Delta lounges, and over the holidays Delta partnered with Ebay to have that company sponsor free in-flight wifi for all passengers.

There's no reason that such a samples-for-promotional-opportunities program could not be taken several steps beyond its current timid experimental phase, or to a more fully developed level with any air carrier. Allowing companies and designers to include promotional items and sample products in first and business class comfort kits would surely be a welcomed opportunity for many up-and-coming businesses to gain exposure to a clientele with greater than average disposable income. And such a set of partnerships would enable the airline to perk up its offerings to its premium passengers and possibly even cut out the costs associated with such offerings.

Similarly, Etihad Airways features pleasant, lightweight artwork on the otherwise blank surfaces on some of its aircraft. If an airline did not want to pay to outfit its planes with something interesting to look at instead of a blank wall, it could easily use the space to offer advertising opportunities. Instead of traditional ads that may annoy passengers or cheapen the appearance of a cabin, the airline could require a more creative approach to an advertising concept or simply allow companies to sponsor displays of genuine art, especially local or unique themed works. A whole host of other creative, mutually beneficial partnerships between airlines and ground-based businesses could also be envisioned to take advantage of airlines' untapped assets (i.e., blank spaces, undivided passenger attention, etc.).

The bottom line here is that product offerings from American air carriers are still greatly underdeveloped; but the good news is that there is still a lot of untapped potential. Likewise, the standard of service offered on U.S. airlines is sub-par compared to their international competition; but the good news there is that this is a fixable problem, as long as airline executives are willing to drop the generic corporate talking points and take an honest look at what they offer compared to their more innovative competitors in the same industry worldwide. They also need to substantively engage and truly listen to those who know what repeat customers want and expect - the customers themselves.

Ideas like this may be a little too revolutionary right now for American air carriers bogged down in the bump and grind of run-of-the-mill corporate life. But the first U.S. airline to adopt a new corporate culture, a consistent systemwide attitude, and a more creative approach to maximizing its assets could jump light years ahead of the competition, both domestically and internationally.

 

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