A Hotelier’s Perspective on Why Airline Customer Service is So Bad

Starwood CEO Adam Aron had an interesting story to tell when I interviewed him on stage in Atlanta.

    He began his career at Pan Am, where he eventually launched their first frequent flyer program.

    When he started at the airline he was taken into a dark room and put in front of a screen where he was shown a two hour documentary on the runway collision of two Boeing 747s at Tenerife in 1977, known as the deadliest accident in aviation history.

    A KLM flight tried to take off while Pan Am’s 747 was on the runway. Everyone onboard the KLM 747 was killed, and 335 people onboard the Pan Am aircraft lost their lives.

    As the video ended his colleague walked into the room, and told him that every decision at the airline matters. Lives are at stake. Don’t screw up.

And that to him is the difference between airlines and hotels. Airlines are focused on safety as the undercurrent in everything they do, while hotels have the luxury to focus on customer experience.

I’m not sure that I agree with Aron on this. There are gradations of customer experience across airlines, it isn’t all or nothing.

And some airlines do well in customer service while running world class operations. I think that Singapore Airlines qualifies here, with a product that runs from their top end suites class, to outstanding business class, and a thoughtful economy class… to the best inflight main entree meal service in the sky, and a service culture that lets them pull off an ad campaign like this.

But there’s no question that service isn’t number one for an airline. And they’re really, really good at the thing that is.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I am not sure if i can agree with your assessment. Let me give you a different perspective, service of one airline does not necessarily degrade, but may become less appealing as it is constantly compared with other airlines. For example, US-based airlines may seem to have poor customer service compared to Asian or Middle Eastern airlines, but if you compare the state today and few years back, i do not think that service has degraded. Of course, this is merely a hypothesis as i cannot really quantify the degradation/improvement in customer service.

  2. You’re still commenting with snark after like 100 other similar jibes spanning a couple of years?

    This story came back to mind the other day and thought I’d share it.

    My blog, I post what’s interesting to me, those who find it worth reading can do so.

  3. Good post. I like the insight into what these CEO’s think. Many times when you travel you ask yourself what was “someone” thinking. I also think it’s easy for C level people to lose touch with reality from a customer service standpoint and a safety standpoint. I also wonder how many executives try to get as close to the safety standards as they can to cut costs.

  4. While I agree with the general premise, a few thoughts:

    – Safety is more of an important issue with the airlines, but making a profit is also right there along with it (as it is with hotels, too).

    – Hotels do have (or should have) a concern with guest safety as well, albeit not as dramatically as airlines. But a hotel with poor building security could end up with a guest being robbed, hurt, or worse. Poorly wired electrical connections could harm a guest, etc.

    – As the domestic US airlines have consolidated, their need to focus on customer service is much less, as we have fewer alternatives.

    – Hotel customer service is often as spotty as airline experiences, within the US anyway. I’ve had both stellar and poor experiences at upmarket properties; and the same range at middle-of-the-road properties. Same with airline customer service. I’d say both realms suffer from a lack of consistency across their companies, with only a few exceptions.

  5. If a Four Seasons cuts corners what happens? Guests aren’t happy and it turns into a Hyatt. And those corners are crappier room service, fewer staff to fluff the guests and fake flowers in the lobby. If an airline cuts corners it’s maintenance and staffing, and it can become a safety issue (you don’t think 1500 hour pilots are more expensive?).
    That said, the real issue are a-hole flight attendants. Funny but I never get attitude on Southwest – despite the fact that they are always playing fast and loose with the maintenance.

  6. Interesting. It answers the “What is the primary focus of your company” question. In this case, it was safety. @Gary Two thumbs up on the troll response. It’s your blog. Keep on writing and I’ll keep reading.

  7. We have a joke as pilots that goes along the lines of “When a doctor kills people, they do it one person at a time. When a pilot kills someone, they do it 100 people at a time.” There’s a lot of truth to that.

    The relevancy here is that hotels inconvenience one or two people at a time, airlines do it by the hundreds. Canceling or delaying a flight impacts over a hundred people, and let bad weather impact a hub, and thousands of people are going to get it.

    Hotels simply don’t inconvenience people at that level of volume. For that to happen, they’d have to shut down the entire hotel with no notice and kick everybody out. If your room isn’t ready at check-in, *your* room isn’t ready at checkin.

  8. @mark
    And you are ever posting as though anyone actually cares about your sad little rants and pathetic attacks. Get a clue, no one does…

  9. Sooo. Then why are certain airlines able to maintain impressive level of service and safety while other airlines are able to maintain only a good safety record. Trying to generalize that poor airline service is due to the high focus on safety is mediocre at best. As a service business, you can never have excuses on why your service is so shitty. Seriously, man up and just take this problem in the chin. No excuses.

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