When your front line people (agents, attendants, etc.) are forced to adopt the role of a ‘heavy’ it spells disaster for your business’s future.
More and more it seems that the big (dinosaur) carriers are creating an adversarial relationship with their passengers.
MEMO: Hey UNITED AIRLINES!!
(For now), I’m your CUSTOMER - not your ENEMY!
Let me start off by sharing that I ought to be treated like an airline’s best friend. I travel a lot. And when I say a lot, I mean it. For example, in the past 25 days I’ve been on the following flights.
1. Vancouver to Edmonton
2. Edmonton to Vancouver
3. Vancouver to Seattle
4. Seattle to San Francisco
5. San Francisco to Vancouver
6. Vancouver to Toronto
7. Toronto to Vancouver
8. Vancouver to Seattle
9. Seattle to Houston
10. Houston to Ft. Lauderdale
11. Ft. Lauderdale to Houston
12. Houston to Calgary
13. Calgary to Vancouver
14. Vancouver to Seattle
15. Seattle to Washington
16. Washington to San Juan
17. San Juan to Chicago
18. Chicago to Vancouver
At this point, I have no allegiance to a particular airline; in fact I belong to pretty much every Frequent Flyer program ever created. I shop for fares based on price and convenience first – then brand second. The fact that I don’t have a particular loyalty might indicate that I’d be worth creating a great relationship with, right? I am exactly the type of customer I’d expect airlines to woo. You might expect that airlines would do their best to secure my continued business.
But does that happen? Not by any stretch.
Why is it I feel like the whole flying experience these days is an adversarial experience?
Airplane travel used to be a glamorous and classy experience. Nowadays, the process is burdened with inconvenience, ridiculous rituals, line-after-line and officious scrutiny.
I’ve taken a half dozen United flights this month, for example. So I can offer these following experiences as evidence of how I feel like I’m on hostile territory when I’m ‘Flying the Friendly Skies’:
• Getting an early boarding pass printed online is now a minefield of pre-filled ordering screens with one purpose: to milk customers for more money for things like trip insurance, extra leg room in their ‘Economy Plus’ section, meal options and baggage ($23 for one bag on a one way trip, but a whopping $2 cheaper than if you pay at check in!) The screens are evidently designed to be confusing and I’m sure many travelers suddenly find themselves paying much more for a trip than they originally planned without any clue as to why.
• It is stressful dealing with the check in staff, who are rigorous when it comes to weighing baggage and ensuring that you are not trying to carry anything more than your one bag – that must fit into the designated space – and your one personal item.
• Gate agents denying requests for exit aisles where there is a bit more space so writing on a laptop (as I’m doing while I write this) with a curt, “there is an extra charge for that”. I ask if I’m a valued customer and therefore worth going the extra mile for? “I cannot. It is airline. Not me.” United makes their gate agents and flight attendants police the ‘Economy Plus’ section – even when flights are nearly empty. “If we let people move, then the (poor sods) that actually paid for the extra space feel stupid because they paid the extra money.”
• The most crucial ambassadors of the airline – the flight attendants – have the affect of jaded gladiators. “I’ll have to check that bag – all our overhead bins are full.” Gee, you think people being asked to pay for checked bags has something to do with that?
• On this flight, I tried to buy one of their ‘snack boxes’. They were mentioned by the purser at the start of the flight. I picked the ‘Eat for Good’ option, which sounded like the best choice. “I’m sorry we don’t have that one available.” Really? You tell us to select a box from your United Hemispheres magazine, then we can’t even buy the choice once we’ve made it? Is it any wonder their business model isn’t working out so well? Simple things like this make a huge difference to the customer (in this case, ME!) Small details win loyal customers – or turn people’s opinions negative.
• I’ve been dealing with anachronistic entertainment systems on every United airplane I’ve been on this month. Either the system is not working, or I’m seeing the same tired entertainment offered on EVERY flight. How many times do you think I’m interested in seeing the same episode of 30 Rock? This especially rubs me the wrong way when the passenger disembarking from the Jet Blue flight is commenting about how great it was to watch the World Cup game USA vs. Algeria LIVE on his plane. Yet another game I’ve missed, darn it!
• Departing on this flight, because I had some flexibility with time – and I was sorry to be missing the World Cup game that was starting at the same time, I volunteered to accept a bump since they had overbooked the flight. I did this an hour and a half before the flight was to depart. When they (inevitably) asked for volunteers, I was the first person to bring up my boarding pass. I appreciate the flight voucher, the option to watch the World Cup Game – and was in no hurry at all. After myself, a couple others volunteered. Just before the flight, I was told they didn’t need me as a volunteer – they were taking four other volunteers who had come up AFTER I had volunteered.
I was a little put off as the flight had been completely boarded by this point and I was not likely to have any overhead compartment space for my carry on. Imagine my surprise when I get to my seat and find a whole row of three seats that are empty. The agent who had denied me the option to volunteer to be bumped walked the aisle of the plane counting passengers. When he got to my seat, he asked if anyone was seated next to me. “Ahhh. No.” At this point, he could have boarded the group two extra people, but chose not to.
The Sad State of United
Really? United, can’t you do any better than this?
Bypass the common convention of allowing the first volunteer the courtesy of being granted the bump?
Miscount the number of passengers on the plane?
Fail to rectify the situation when mistake is discovered?
Piss off a great customer?
And yet, even while all the dinosaur, ‘established’ airlines are struggling to survive, new airlines with different corporate cultures are succeeding – Virgin, Jet Blue, Westjet, Southwest. Each of these airlines has an inherently unique and vibrant corporate culture. They create devoted customers who are loyal and constantly evangelizing about their experiences. They offer modern communication systems – planes with WORKING entertainment systems. They make air travel FUN in some ways the companies like United Airlines never do.
Airline travel should be a positive Adventure – not a trial for a survivalist.