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.