Browsing Posts published in October, 2006
I always hear the argument that successful airlines are those that underpromise and overdeliver. Take a look at Southwest Airlines. When you buy a ticket, you expect a seat and you expect to get to your destination, but that’s about it. When they sling a snack box at you and have flight attendants that actually smile, you’re thrilled at how the experience exceeded your expectations.
Of course, that type of scenario leads to far fewer complaints than those airlines that overpromise and underdeliver. In fact, in August, the most recent month available from the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report, Southwest had a very low .15 complaints per 100,000 passengers. That translates into 13 whole complaints sent to the DOT that month, but if they were perfect at underpromising and overdelivering, they wouldn’t have had any at all, right?
The root of the problem is related to consistency, or rather, lack thereof. Every company sets expectations. In Southwest’s case, they usually set expectations low enough that most inconsistencies tend to fall on the positive side, but on at least 13 occasions last month, it went far enough the other way that people felt compelled to write complaints to the DOT. That means there were plenty more people who weren’t pleased but didn’t bother to complain (at least, not to the government). Airlines that promise more will likely find inconsistencies more often having a negative impact than at an airline like Southwest.
So while airlines can try to promise less, that’s not a business model that suits everyone. Many airlines pride themselves on service promises that are much more difficult to meet. What those airlines can do is try to find a way to be more consistent and actually fulfill their promises. Common sense tells me that the easiest way to provide consistent service is to keep your rules as simple as possible. The legacy airlines have done an excellent job of adding crazy exceptions and complexities into their rules that make consistency almost impossible.
Let’s look at baggage check-in for an obvious example. Delta says that bags must be checked no later than 30 minutes before departure except in Atlanta, Denver, Vegas, LA, and Orlando where it’s 45 minutes and in San Juan, St Thomas, and St Croix where it’s 60 minutes. Oh, and that’s just for domestic travel. If you’re going internationally, you have to check your bags 60 minutes prior except in Bogota, Nassau, Providenciales, and St Lucia where it’s 2 hours, Moscow where it’s 3 hours, and Istanbul where it’s inexplicably 3 hours and 15 minutes.
You’ll be surprised to know that even golden boy Southwest has fallen into this trap. It’s a 30 minute cutoff everywhere except for Baltimore, Chicago/Midway, Denver, Vegas, LA, Phoenix, Orlando, and Washington/Dulles where it’s 45 minutes. So why the added complexity? My guess is that this is an example of good intentions gone wrong thanks to anchoring on previous policies.
Undoubtedly the baggage cutoff time was 30 minutes at all airports in the past. At some point, the powers-that-be realized that some airports required more time to reliably get bags on the plane. The seemingly logical response was to inconvenience as few customers as possible, so they just bumped up the cutoff to 45 minutes prior at the few airports that needed it. I can see how this makes sense in a vacuum, but when realizing that it has to be communicated internally and externally along with thousands of other policies around the airline’s network, it doesn’t seem to be worth it. Contrast this with Frontier Airlines which has a 45 minute cutoff for all bags in all cities. A uniform policy that’s easy to communicate makes it far easier to remain consistent.
Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic to think that just simplifying policies will solve the problem entirely. Big airlines are bound to have a more difficult time with consistency by nature. The larger and more diverse the organization, the more difficult it is to keep everyone acting according to policy, regardless of how simple it is.
A thread in FlyerTalk today is actually what prompted me to write about this issue. The thread details how someone flying on United out of Los Angeles wanted to check a bottle of expensive wine and was denied. He was told that it was “a LAX-only rule, and it was instituted because someone checked wine without wrapping it properly, the bottle broke, leaked out of the suitcase staining other peoples’ suitcases, and [United] was held liable for the damage. The [Customer Service Rep] next to her then remarked ‘I had no idea we had that rule!’. Grrr…”
Really, it’s the very large size of the airline that allows something like this to even occur. A smaller airline would have more oversight over its airport operations – that would help eliminate random policies implemented by individual airports without approval from above. And if this is just a rumor and not an actual policy, smaller airlines would be able to diffuse those rumors much more quickly.
So is the solution to only fly small airlines that can be consistent? Yeah, right. That’s probably not possible, and even if it were, most people wouldn’t be willing to forgo the frequent flier benefits the big guys offer. What’s realistic is for airlines and customers to meet in the middle. Customers need to be more patient in dealing with airlines, and airlines need to work to simplify their policies to remove as much inconsistency as possible.
Want to help AirTran decide where to fly? Well, click here and you can vote for your favorite city. I really hope this is just a lame promotion and not something that will actually influence their future planning. Then again, with JetBlue stepping in and stealing their markets before they arrive, maybe this is AirTran’s attempt to use reverse psychology on their friends in New York. Either way, you might as well let them know how you feel – maybe you’ll get more air service in your hometown.
I was out of town over the weekend, so I didn’t have time to write. Here are a few random bits of info:
- Looks like it only took Oasis Hong Kong one extra day to get approval to fly in Russian airspace. The airline is now operating regularly. We’ll see how long it takes for them to burn through their cash.
- Ryanair is again looking to Poland for expansion. The latest route, Shannon (Ireland) to Lodz begins December 4. Many of Europe’s low cost carriers have looked toward eastern Europe for expansion, and Poland has benefited tremendously.
- In news of the weird, Air Astana, one of Kazakhstan’s main airlines, changed it’s two letter airline code from KC to 4L. The old one apparently stood for “Kazakhstan Carrier” and the new one clearly stands for nothing. When asked why they made the change, they said it was “the latest development in Air Astana’s rapid growth road to becoming a world class airline.” Uh, ok. Updated 8/5/08 @ 11p – I’ve been informed (two years late) that they actually switched from 4L to KC. Makes much more sense, no?
- Skybus appears to be getting closer to launch. The airline ordered 65 new Airbus narrowbodies to be delivered beginning in late 2008. They plan to start operations next year with aircraft on short term lease until the new planes arrive.
- Mesa will begin flights between Las Vegas and both Visalia and Merced (California) on November 19. The flights will be operated as US Airways Express.
- On November 14, Aeromexico will begin nonstop flights between Chicago/O’Hare and Guadalajara. The lack of extensive air service between Chicago and Mexico has always surprised me. Chicago has the United States’ second largest Mexican population.
- Cyprus’ AJet will mercifully be shut down. You might remember the airline under its previous name, Helios, when it had a 737 crash after sitting on autopilot with nobody at the controls for two hours. The airline has had multiple safety issues since then.
JetBlue has been trying to fly to Chicago for a long time, but their inability to get gate space and slots at O’Hare meant they weren’t able to start flying unless they settled for another area airport (Midway, Gary). Clearly they were unwilling to do so, and they really stepped up the fight recently.
In this post, I talked about how they were given approval to start 4 daily flights out of the airport, most likely all to New York/JFK. Well, yesterday, they announced their plans and they were surprising.
In yesterday’s announcement, they said they’d start five daily flights to New York/JFK and two daily flights to Long Beach (California) on January 4. Where did these three extra slots come from? According to the Chicago Tribune (subscription required):
The additional slots were obtained under the FAA’s recent decision to allow airlines at O’Hare to “trade, swap, buy or sell” slots, according to JetBlue spokesman Bryan Baldwin. He declined to say exactly how JetBlue negotiated the additional slots or from whom it had obtained them.
Interesting, so that’s why they reduced their initial request from 8 slots to 4. They knew they could get the others on their own. They’ll start flying out of Third World Terminal 2, most likely from the old America West gate that the airline gave back after its merger with US Airways.
One other thing to note. They have an amazing $36 fare sale for the first 36 hours (you probably have half that time left), but good luck finding any seats. Spot checks show almost no availability when you’d want to go, especially on the Long Beach route which interests me the most.
Now the question is what two flights are they dropping out of Long Beach? They’re operating at maximum capacity there right now, so two flights will have to go to make room for these. I’ll do some research and see if I can find out.