Thoughts on “An Open Letter To The Airline Industry Leadership”

I received an email from the author of the blog, “Think for a Moment,” suggesting that I take a look at the letter to airline CEOs that he (she?) had written. I’m always happy to read people’s takes on the industry, because often I think those who are surrounded by the industry don’t really step back to see what people on the outside, customers, are thinking and feeling often enough.

So I read through the letter, and it was full of a lot of the same stuff that we often hear about the industry. Flying should be fun, but it’s not. Airlines need to treat passengers better. Like I said, it’s the usual stuff. But he does go into specifics, so thought I would address each one to try to get a good discussion going.

Communicate with Your Customers
How many times have we heard the complaint about airlines not keeping customers informed when things go wrong? It’s happened enough that the airlines even put a rule in their customer commitments that they would communicate every 15 minutes during delays. But we all know it still doesn’t happen as frequently as it should on a broad scale.

Is there any way to fix this? I’d think the only way to truly fix it is to make sure that the front line has a portion of their compensation based on it. Would the unions ever allow something like this into a contract? I highly doubt it, but it makes sense. Put some performance-based compensation in there and you fix it quickly.

I’m not saying that you rate a captain on her landings and then pay based on that. And I don’t like the idea of paying based on punctuality, because that encourages pilots to fly in unsafe conditions just to make some extra money. I do, however, like paying for basics like communicating delays to passengers. It shouldn’t be that hard, but oftentimes there isn’t a huge motivation for it to happen.

Stop Nickel and Diming Customers
This is one that has been shouted from the rooftops, but I have to disagree. There’s nothing inherently wrong with nickel-and-diming if that’s the strategy you want to pursue. That doesn’t mean it’s right for every airline (hint: it’s not), but it’s right for some. Historically, you’ve received a meal and a drink for free, so now everyone assumes it should be that way for eternity. If an airline wants to pursue an all-in type of strategy, that’s fine (and more should be looking at this). But who is to say that an a la carte strategy is bad?

There are plenty of people out there who don’t want a meal, and as US Airways has found, when you charge for drinks, people don’t want them either. So why shouldn’t people pay for what they want to have? Why should someone who doesn’t need to check a bag have to pay for a fare that includes two checked bags?

Of course, I absolutely hate that I can’t just decide this up front on most airlines. I may know at the time of booking what I want to have, and I should be able to include that in my original purchase. But I should also be able to add on at the airport and on the plane if I want to. Choice is good.

So where would I draw the line here? It drives me nuts to see airlines charge for something that you can’t really avoid. Look at Allegiant, for example. They charge an $11.50 booking fee per person for any booking you make unless it’s made at the airport ticket counter. That’s a frustrating fee that should just be rolled into the base fare because it’s so difficult to avoid it.

The worst is probably when you aren’t capable of making a booking online for a certain type of itinerary, but the airline will still charge you a fee to use the call center. Those types of fees are maddening and should not be charged. But everything else is fair game for those airlines who choose to purse this strategy. I just wish more airlines opted not to go a la carte so that passengers would have more choice. For now, Southwest gets the brunt of the benefit.

Create a Good Customer Experience
Obviously this one needs some more explanation, because it’s a big topic. So let’s take some snippets.

And you know what would have guaranteed my loyalty and undying love? If one of these carriers had demonstrated the foresight to put into a database that I am six feet, five inches tall and well over 200 pounds. To what end, you may ask? To ensure that I always get priority for (1) the emergency aisle or (2) an aisle seat or (3) at a minimum, to ensure that you don’t put some behemoth next to me.

I find it funny to see this comment come right after the nickel-and-diming one, because they’re actually tied together. Many airlines are now charging for the best seats on the plane. JetBlue will give you more legroom for a few bucks, and the legacy carriers sell their best seats on the plane as well. So the invention of nickel-and-diming actually lets the tall person self-select into the better seats by paying more. And that’s how it should be. If you just want to buy a rock bottom fare, you shouldn’t be entitled to the exit row if someone else is willing to pay for it.

do not want to overhear one more time about hours being cut, schedules being changed, routes being altered. Aren’t there other hours in the day to discuss and share these thoughts other than during work on the plane and in ear shot of passengers?

This one is a pet peeve of mine as well, and I’d say it points back to the idea of pay for performance that I discussed earlier. How do you know if a flight attendant is complaining loudly in the cabin? Look for complaints from passengers. Put a survey out to every single person on every plane and ask for feedback. Now that airlines often have in-seat video and many are installing wi-fi, this would be an easy thing to do electronically. Then employees can receive a portion of their pay based upon customer feedback. I know . . . the unions will never go for this.

Show Heart

Again, this needs further explanation. The author is referring to the airline’s rigid fare rules. He was traveling last minute for a funeral, and the fare was, in his opinion, too high. This of course is not something that a reservations agent can change. They don’t have the authority, and it is a difficult situation. So what could an airline do? These types of situations are not something that can be resolved with a blanket corporate policy. These are things that have to be handled on individual cases, but nobody is ever empowered to handle them.

So how do you get around it? Well, it’s hard. Airlines are afraid to give more power to the front line employees because they don’t trust them with that power. It’s sad but true, and it’s a reflection of the state of the airlines today. Maybe the airlines could create a central customer resolution desk. But the problem with that is there are thousands and thousands of people traveling to funerals, hospitals, etc every single day. There’s no way to handle the flood of requests that would inevitably follow.

I don’t see this as something that can change without a complete alteration of employee relations. And that’s something that isn’t going to happen very easily, but it would be great to see.

Create a Real Customer Loyalty Program
The author suggests a frequent flier program that offers the following:

  • Discounted fares as a frequent flyer
  • Lowest fare matching
  • Automated upgrade to Economy Plus (United’s “better than Coach but clearly not Business” class) that has more leg room
  • Noting that I should always have an aisle

I hate to break it to him, but this already exists, for the most part. Elite members of United’s program do get automatic access to Economy Plus, and they have aisle seats that are set aside for them to reserve. They also get exclusive discounts that United sends out to only the frequent fliers. Every legacy carrier has this. The one thing they don’t get? Automatic low fare matching. And why should they? They shouldn’t. If you’re building up all of these benefits to flying one airline, then you should be willing to pay more for it.

What I see in this message is that a lot of people want a lot of stuff without paying for it. Yes, the customer service issues need to be addressed. I have no disagreement, but the best way I see that it can be addressed is via a method that no union contract will support (I’m guessing). So that relies upon an improvement in labor/management relations to build trust. That’ s not easy either. Most of the other complaints, however, seem to forget that people pay very little to fly. I mean, the author was complaining about a $399 roundtrip ticket on AirTran. I do not know what route he was flying, but paying $399 to fly roundtrip somewhere is not that high if you think about it. You’d pay that for two nights at a mid-level hotel.

So I can see airlines looking to significantly improve service only if they can profit from it. Southwest is trying to show that it can do it by avoiding fees. Other airlines (including Southwest) will add things like onboard internet because they can make money on it. If people start voting for those airlines that provide better amenities and service, then ultimately the other airlines will opt to compete. But if people continue to choose the lowest price around, then airlines are never going to make improvements.

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20 Comments on "Thoughts on “An Open Letter To The Airline Industry Leadership”"

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I love the idea of performance based pay that includes customer service. When I worked at SkyWest 1/4th of the quarterly performance reward bonus was based on customer satisfaction surveys. Granted it was an overall rating for all employees, and not individual scores, but it still worked. We could track the ratings online all through the quarter to see if we would pay out on that portion of the bonus.

Nick Barnard
I’m all for better info. Much of this is systems design. I ran through an experience with Delta’s data during an irregular operation in my blog entry, The Attack of Terrible Airline Data! From what I’ve seen the IT guys who designed this didn’t think to hard of about actual customer experiences and run through the data they had to generate info. Who cares if a flight is a minute earlier or two minutes later? That level of precision is unnecessary. Honestly the accuracy resolution should be no greater than 10 minutes. If you want greater accuracy than that charter… Read more »
ML Harris
A La Carte is good. Rolling optionals back into ticket prices, bad. For instance, I like the baggage fees. I carry an Air Boss, which I carry on, and my laptop briefcase. That’s everything I need for ten days anywhere. If I want to bring back a bunch of stuff, I have a duffel that I can check and pay the fee for. Fair enough. As to empowering front line employees, pay-for-performance, and other employee stuff, doesn’t there have to come a time when, for the good of the industry and the customers, the unions and the management stop being… Read more »
Matty D.
I think it’s good to communicate with the customers (although I feel every 15 minutes is a bit excessive when the delay is obvious… can you just imagine, “Folks the weather is bad.” 15 mins later: “Folks the weather is still bad.” etc. I would rather them say “We’re delayed due to weather in Fogville, but our Dispatcher for this flight has informed me that forecasts estimate improving conditions in about an hour. We’ll keep you posted if any improvements occur before then.” I think the key is truthful information – how many times have we all experienced a delay,… Read more »
On paying very little to fly, yes I think this gets lost on the leisure traveling public. They have gotten far too used to $200 R/T cross country flights and such. As a frequent business traveler I pay (and pass on to clients) very expensive fares. $1000 from MSP to DFW is not uncommon for me. Recently paid $1200 to Austin for example. That’s the cost of doing business and I accept that. My complaint is that it’s a relatively short flight and even though I make the trip over a dozen times each year, because of switching up airlines… Read more »
eponymous coward
Rewards/Loyalty programs should have NOTHING to do with how many “miles” you travel and everything to do with how much money/profit you earn the airline. It really irks me when the 1st class cabin is full up with only frequent elite travelers. On most domestic flights this is the case. I’d be game for a total doing away with the loyalty programs and making people pay for everything…including 1st/business class Fly Virgin America- every seat in F is paid (either as full paid F or day-of-flight upgrade for cash), and their FF program, Elevate, is based on airline spend, NOT… Read more »

The author of this article is Joel Mier, and we had a chance to chat with him about his article on the Airplane Geeks Podcast a couple of weeks ago. Very, very interesting gentleman who I was impressed with. He’s not necessarily an airline guy, but a marketing guy looking in from outside the airline industry.

Sometimes we lose perspective from within the industry, and it’s refreshing to be reminded of how the rest of the business world views us. Something about seeing forests and trees…

If anyone’s interested, you can listen to the interview with Joel Mier here:

David SF eastbay
I had read something about airlines rewarding passengers by how much money they spent and not how many miles they flew. Only two (at that time anyway) airlines in the world were doing that and it made sense. Since big airlines don’t do things that make sense it’s understandable why they will reward the person who buys a $100.00 ticket each week, and not the person who spends $1000.00 and flys only once a month. The nickel and diming issue is big because people didn’t see ticket prices go down when they had to start paying separately for food, drinks,… Read more »
Speaking of keeping people updated, here’s a story I had with Delta this summer. I was in Morocco for a conference at the end of May, scheduled to leave on a Delta-coded, Air France-operated flight on June 1. Around May 25 or 26, many of my European colleagues at the conference started receiving messages from their airlines that their return flights were being pushed back by an hour, but the arrival time in Europe didn’t change. It turned out that Morocco, which normally does not observe Daylight Saving Time, decided as an emergency measure due to the spike in oil… Read more »
ML Harris — “you’d trust your frontline workers’ judgment somewhat to make a call on someone flying for a funeral”: I don’t understand why front-line workers should make a call on the fare a person pays. In industries where salespeople make this call, it ofter comes (in part) from their own commission — they’d rather close a deal that’s less profitable to them personally than lose it altogether. Airline ticket agents are not paid commissions and airline pricing is a well-researched field; whether a particular class of travelers deserves certain discounts (be it for reasons of compassion or pure cost-benefit… Read more »
Nick Barnard

Ron – Thats sad, really really sad. I wonder how much of that is due to outsourcing and not empowering employees.

If something like that happened in my company I’d at least sling an email, or open a ticket to whomever could fix it.

I wonder how much of this is a problem with outsourcing? Since an employee at an outsourcing company wouldn’t have access to send that info on.

CF – Does eponymous coward’s IP address belong to Virgin America?

Speaking of updates (and Delta), last night I got an email titled “Itinerary update: flight change” about my upcoming flight from MCO to LAX in December. After careful examination to see what changed (they don’t make it easy), it turns out it was the flight number; all the other details remain the same, to the minute. They’ve done this to me once before on the same flight — it changed from 1473 when I bought the ticket in September, to 1693 in October, to 1433 now. I understand it’s important that I have the correct flight number when I fly,… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Ron, the IT department shouldn’t be responsible for the subject line. Someone in customer operations should be. If I were to place a bet I’d think this is the key on the break down to both your problems — nobody actually looking at the customer experience. I had a friend who got a Delta flight notice that her flight was leaving one minute later. While I’m sure from a scheduling perspective that one minute was important, from a customer perspective it doesn’t really matter. This is fixed by thinking about it from the customer perspective, what changes are important to… Read more »
Joel Mier of "Think For A" Responds
I greatly appreciate and value the discussion that Brett and his readers have had about my “open letter”. Please allow me to quickly respond to Brett’s assessment. First and foremost, the main point of my post was that as a marketing professional who specializes in customer experience, my experience and analysis indicates that the airline industry has little to rare focus on this. And as industry examples (Southwest) and outside industry analogs suggest (Best Buy, Netflix), companies that are able to create and deliver a complete, quality customer experience win. I think Brett misses this point wildly. This is not… Read more »
Nicholas, email and web usability are a customer experience matter, but expertise in this area is more likely to be found in the IT department — too often marketing people still “don’t get” the internet. It just so happens that Jakob Nielsen’s latest alertbox column is titled “Transactional Email and Confirmation Messages” ; the alertbox in general should be required reading for anybody doing business on the internet. Anyway, I was wrong in blaming Delta for my bad email experience, because the flight number update emails actually came from Expedia. Which makes it even worse — Expedia is primarily… Read more »
Margaret Nahmias

I think special needs or height requirement would be wonderful to assist in help a person find the right seat in advance. However, if you include personal information there is always a possibility of discrimination.

Margaret Nahmias

Whatever happened to common coutresy and intitative?

Nick Barnard
Ron, I said customer operations – not marketing… At far too many companies IT departments are tools, and act like such. (Nothing derogatory, they get asked to do something by another department and they do it.) The problem is the people who ask them to do something don’t think at the level of detail that the IT folks need to actually make something intelligible. I think airline emails should be managed by a department that sits under the same umbrella and very close to the call center folks. Let me give you an example: I recently got an award ticket… Read more »