Airlines Need To Start With How To Make Customer Lives Easier, And Work Backwards To Policies

Two quick stories about customer focus help me put in context a conversation that’s been happening on LinkedIn among airline executives.

  • Jeff Bezos says the biggest mistake companies make is focusing on what their competitors do instead of what their customers want.

  • My high school debate partner sophomore year said something that stuck with me for over 30 years. After a tournament several of us went out to a nice restaurant for dinner. He ordered something that wasn’t on the menu. Fourteen year old me was perplexed, and he offered “good restaurants will make you whatever you ask for if they can.” He went on to become Senior Vice President of restaurants and bars for the Kimpton hotel chain.

As an aside, here are other high school debate stories I’ve written about, and maybe my high school restaurant story is why I enjoyed Etihad’s first class chef program so much.

Mark Ross-Smith, who used to run the Malaysia Airlines Enrich program, wrote on LinkedIn about how airline executives need to truly put themselves in the shoes of their customers.

Air Canada loyalty head Mark Nasr writes in response,

Airline employees and executives benefit greatly from firsthand experience with competitor products, relevant (even if non-airline) digital experiences, and eating their own dog food. Loyalty program leaders should also know the products and services of their partners as well as they know their own.

Though, I’m not sure it requires previous experience in being a customer–that could also have unintended consequences for hiring and diversity strategy–just that it is encouraged/facilitated/required on an ongoing basis.

When American Airlines signed off on its new domestic product, with less space for each passenger and less padding for each seat, they did not even build a mockup of the cabin to test it. Their CEO did not even try their new standard product until it was flying for nine months. Is it any wonder that after retrofitting planes into this new configuration (Project Oasis) they had to go and re-retrofit them to fix problems (Project Kodiak)? And that they’re still left with uncomfortable seats, regardless of how many of them there are?

American Airlines is hardly alone here, but they’re the U.S. airline with the greatest potential to be better than they are today. It all starts by thinking through the product that delivers the most value to the customer and working backwards on how to deliver it.

Delivering a commodity (‘our schedule is our product!’) is low margin. The highest margin products are usually also the best products.

I’m reminded of American’s ‘We Know Why You Fly’ ads from the mid-aughts. It wasn’t a super well-executed campaign but the basic idea was right: start with understanding your customer needs.

My favorite spot was the businessman sinking into his seat after busting his butt on the road and American basically says ‘we get it’ and we are going to make it simple and easy from here, just relax add we will get you home. (It was 15 years ago so it was a middle aged white dude, natch.)

That is why little things like skipping over people for upgrades if they aren’t at the gate is so deadly. Your core customer pays a premium for efficient use of time whether arriving last minute or working in the club as long as they can.

And it’s why changes Tempe management made in 2015 to restrict same day flight changes were so bad. Customers had to follow the same routing. American is the biggest route network with the most hubs but business travelers looking to get home early could no longer use them. Indeed, flying out of a city without multiple flights a day to the same hub could no longer same day change at all. And American uses more restrictive inventory for this than others.

Starting with we know why you fly and then describing the customer you’re trying to serve focuses the brand. Every decision needs to be built around making life easier for that passenger and they will always be loyal and pay what you ask.

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, 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 recently stayed at The Savoy in London. They have a program where every employee, high or low, gets to stay at the hotel, dine in its restaurants, and drink in its bars. The whole idea is for each employee to experience the hotel from the customer’s viewpoint, understand the issues and provide better service.

    Not rocket science but it works.

  2. @Jamieo – now if they had to PAY for those items like mere mortals, then they could experience it like a customer.
    Elsewise, it’s a day off with pay and dinner.

  3. Couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s important to humble yourself and try what the average flyer experiences. Having AA exec plat, delta diamond and star alliance gold at the same time is interesting. Each alliance has their pitfalls. Revenue based accrual and status, along with continued devaluation miles will eventually be the end of airline loyalty. Why bank miles with an airline when banks cards (Amex/chase) can’t devalue fixed value rewards. If AA continues their path and tries to copy Delta by attaching a 1 cent value per mile AAdvantage is over. When I can earn 4.5 cents per dollar on chase when redeeming for travel, why in the heck would I ever bank an airline point?!

  4. This post takes me back to Stephen Covey’s elegantly simple principle, “Begin with the end in mind.” The problem is that the customer/consumer isn’t viewed as “the end.”

  5. @Gary: Reducing the problem to warm-sounding platitudes will get lots of supportive comments but not address the real issue at all. Specifically, the budget for these proposed changes can be raised by increasing fares for premium class seats, but for the 90% of passengers who will not pay a penny more than the cheapest fare, where does the budget come from then? In fact, this group does not want a single change that will cost a penny. The proposed changes are entirely a manifesto for business class, or 10% of the customer base. The big monetary gains come in the 90%.

  6. The fine 1960s book “Up the Organization” was written by a CEO of two major companies and basically gives advice on how to run a company and treat customers well. Among his suggestions was to “call yourself up” and see how hard it is to get through to a real person who can work with you. The point was to see what barriers had been erected between management and their customers, then remove them. And this was before automatic phone hell became common. Speaking broadly, it seems the airlines have not taken his advice on this and many other levels.

  7. @L3 there is no ‘budget’ required to allow same day confirmed changes to connect through a different city – as competitor airlines do. it’s not just premium cabin tickets that are at issue but also corporate contracts. american earns a lower yield than competitors, and has higher costs in many cases. that’s not sustainable.

  8. Tag Doug Parker and Scott Kirby. Have them undo the devaluations of their airline loyalty programs. What a shame those two are.

  9. This issue obviously fits American like a glove, which games its schedule to have a flight depart SAN-ORD 10 minutes before dinner time just so they can serve but only a Vietnamese salad for the main meal in first. Of course, if their C-Suite ever flew on their planes, they would experience the back breaking first class seats and demitasse bathrooms.

    Amazing how different firms in the transport industry track in parallel.

    For example, given how corporate management at Amtrak do not take the time to travel on their overnight long distance trains, how can they be expected to understand passenger expectations and make correct decisions that favor the customer experience? For example:

    1) Bartenders not trained in mixology to craft cocktails, nor are they supplied with correct mixers and condiments.
    2) Incessant PA chatter from 0700 disrupting sleep to announce meal selections or to call out tables by name in the dining car.
    3) Production of dining car meals on western trains on 2 night out schedules was eliminated last October and replaced with frozen meals in a bowl. Now that those trains back to daily service, promotion of restored dining car galley preparation of meals is as if a new and improved invention, when just back to what it was with a new menu.
    4) Typically, no information offered on breakfast hours next day; left to sleeping car attendant to pound on compartment door to announce last call for breakfast.
    5) Lack of private First Class lounge on-board for sleeper passengers; forced to return to compartments by conductors requiring lounge seating for “shorts” (just traveling a few stops) as available coaches full.
    6) Dining car restricted to sleeping car passengers which pushes the envelope in opposition to the ruling against segregation by SCOTUS Henderson v. U.S. 1950, given the vast majority of coach passengers are minority.

    To understand the customer experience, it should be a requisite to at least sample it on a regular basis to know how to properly fine tune, instead of toileting such expectations by making decisions in the dark, at a minimum irrelevant; worse, to undercut the intended goals.

  10. The Kirby/Parker ULCC mentality is a tough thing to shake off. It’s certainly tough to think of many actual improvements that have been made simply to benefit the customer since the America West posse took over. Remember OneWorld Explorer awards? More than 31″ standard seat pitch? Video on seat backs? Consistent good service? Non-slimline seats? Reduced price awards? Oops, those are dying but not dead yet but you get the idea. These people simply don’t understand how to run a quality full service airline.

  11. “the new airline employment requirement should be – having earned elite status in the past 10 years using your own money on your own time. ”

    Hilarious. What regular loyalty customers are doing that? Almost every single one is either earning it on their employers dime on their employer’s time or they’re earning it via means like special credit cards. Virtually nobody is spending their own money to go on enough flights to earn premium status. So what good would it do to force airline employees to do something that none of their customers are doing?

  12. Well said Mark on Amtrak and also I agree with you Christian. Those two definitely have ruined their airlines and should be hired as baggage and latrine handlers at Greyhound.

  13. @RF: If this travel blog (or other blogs) writes about how much people hate Scott Kirby of UA, it would be flooded with comments from both flyers and UA employees.

    @GKK: You’re definitely right- Kirby is greedy and much worse. And UA is not the same as AA – of course, its ticket prices are always higher thank to Kirby the King Cobra.

  14. It’s a weird industry. Coach is low-margin, except in fortress cities. So, either the customer has a choice of airlines competing on cost or no choice at all. In those cases, it would seem that the only decision to make is to cut costs to the regulatory minimum.
    Yet, contrary to L3’s assertion, a large chunk of the revenue, and the margin that airlines need, comes from the “premium” cabins, and even premium fares in the economy cabin.
    Some people will pay well above cost for an airline that will take care of them. If that translates to a slightly bigger seat, a tray of bland starch and fat, and the requirement to stand around an overcrowded gate area for a three-hour rolling delay, then those people aren’t getting what they paid for.

  15. All LHR UA/Star Alliance lounges (Terminal 2) still closed. Never thought I’d pay for Business Class to travel Internationally) w/all Airline lounges “closed” (granted due to CV19) w fares the same or higher.

    International airline travel is now a “battle” w/ changing restrictions and requirements.

  16. BA used to require its sales staff to fly on one BA longhaul flight one way, and they had to fly with a competitor on the return. In my experience (a long time ago), management staff travelled a lot on BA flights, and quite a of of the time in World Traveller. They weren’t completely isolated from what it was like on board.

    In my more recent experiences, the surprise has been Southwest. They pride themselves on ease of use, cheerful and friendly staff, acceptably comfortable seats. This all seems to be gone. The past few flights have been miserable: uncomfortable, crowded, unfriendly, and needlessly complicated. The ticket agents don’t even say hello. So much for their folksy and casual world of hospitality.

    Unrestricted and last-minute fares have been the same as other airlines in first class. Phoenix to Chicago will never be a fun time, but you can at least get Main Cabin Extra, reserve a bulkhead/exit, or fly in first on American. They will have just as much (or as little ) “LUV.”

    After 13 September, I hope we’ll see a substantive improvement in service across the board: more relaxed crews and passengers (no longer in mask wars), acceptable first class service (glassware, no boxed meals), well-maintained lounges, and seatback entertainment. Given United’s announcement, I wouldn’t be surprised if American reconsidered it’s seatback entertainment. (After all, passengers watching TV are quiet passengers.)

    As for Southwest, I think they will have to own that they really aren’t terribly friendly anymore, many seats are crushingly uncomfortable, and that they’re really just Spirit with fewer baggage fees and without the big front seat.

    Lastly, the animosity between passengers and flight attendants has reached historic proportions. And I think management sees that. I hope.

    Saying goodby to masks will help. But I also think the union and the flight attendants shoot themselves in their respective feet when they rely on the hackneyed “primarily here for your safety” line. It is unquestionably true. They ARE trained as safety professionals. But most flight attendants I’ve met WANT to provide high quality service as well.

    Safety matters, but I’ve known so many FAs who love the sundae cart (friendly interaction with passengers,) they might enjoy mixing some novel mixed drink, or serving up a different cycle of main meals. Flight attendants are sadly delusional if they go into the profession thinking that they only need to enforce rules and prepare for emergencies; it is a service industry, and they are the faces of it. I hope to see some FAs come forward and say, “We want you to have comfortable, positive experience on our airline. And we want you to be a repeat customer.”

  17. I won’t fly for my job unless it is demanded of me. As for personal travel, if I can’t get there by car, I’m not going. Lack of room in coach, flight attendants and ground personal not caring as well as the people sharing the flight thinking “it’s all about them” instead of trying to get along are a few of the reasons. Oh, and let’s not forget about being left on the tarmac at times for hours having to remain in a very uncomfortable seat until you rot. Thanks, but no thanks.

  18. During my airline youth I once shared my idea that all customer contact employees be required to take an annual familiarization flight where they have to experience the product from the other side of the counter. My idea did not go very far.

  19. Today especially flying is such a negative experience
    From the minute you get on the plane all the announcements are “negative”. You are immediately told to sit, get out of the way and wear your mask or else. Its difficult to know when you can use a restroom when the fadten seat belt is always on. Keep your arms and legs tucked into your tiny spot. You feel like a child ready to be put in time out from the moment you board. The flight attendants are on defense in their announcements. No more “friendly” skies. More like sit down and shut up.

  20. I would like to take this article one step further. I think that MANY of the points that were made in the article could apply to MANY other travel providers?

    My first job after university was with a non-lodging division with a large hotel chain. I thought that at least one benefit of the job is that we would stay at some of the nice hotels. Wrong. We generally stayed at Days Inns and Econo Lodges, often across the street from one of the company’s brands.

    How many front desk clerks have stayed at the hotel they work? How many hotel managers actually have stayed at their property which would not be hard to do when the occupancy is lower than 80%? How many housekeepers have really stayed in a hotel? You would be surprised how few. If they did, front desk clerks would be more sensitive to the needs of frequent travelers and the rooms would be maintained at a greater rate.

    After i left that employer, I moved into a position where I was on the road 200 nights per year and saw how absolutely irritating that minor policies could be to someone traveling every night. The lamp with the burned out bulb, stains on the furniture, breakfast that was not available ON-TIME, and the like made me far more selective as to where I would stay.

    Just a thought.

  21. Has AA decided to bring back hot meal service in FC? UA has it. I recently booked a roundtrip from ORD to LAS on UA instead of AA – mainly because of what was offered in FC. And guess what? UA FC fare was 20% lower than AA’s – and AA offers no amenities.

    Bring back the seatback entertainment and hot meals AA. Or I’ll stick with UA.

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