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.

Summary
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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