Oscar Munoz and Ed Bastian Offer Two Competing Visions for Airline Customer Service

In late April United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz started making statements that sounded like excuses for poor service, passing the buck and saying that customers are unhappy regardless of what United does.

Passengers are frustrated but, he says, the stress of air travel really isn’t their fault — it’s really what happens before customers board: “from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security… by the time you sit on one of our aircraft” so United can’t even do much about it “”improving the flying experience won’t ultimately depend on ‘what coffee or cookie I give you.’

Shortly afterward United Airlines President Scott Kirby started sounding a similar note,

They’re already tense, they’re stressed, trying to get through security, trying to get to the airport on time, figure out where to park their cars, you know, all that stuff. And then they get here and what doesn’t make sense to them feels like a set of black and white rules, that we’re this big company that just doesn’t care.

I’m sure the airline’s corporate communications team would have preferred that they say something like, flying is increasingly small-d democratic, it brings people together from all walks of life and each with their own story, so as challenging as it is we have to get better at meeting the needs of our customers wherever they start from, by showing empathy. Instead it sounded like United isn’t to blame for poor service, there’s nothing that can be done for unhappy people.

Matthew reports on Delta CEO Ed Bastian being asked to respond to United’s statements and naturally he used it as an opportunity to distinguish his own airline.

I disagree. Those certainly aren’t Delta customers he’s speaking too. We find our Net Promoter Score, which is how we track customer satisfaction is at an all-time high at Delta. For the first quarter, we just scored a 50 in terms of grade. That grade 10 years ago was about a 20. Today it’s up to a 50.

You know, this industry is about more just airplanes and technology, it is about people. And we have wonderful people that provide great service. So, I just flew in from Atlanta and it was a great flight. I didn’t see anyone upset. I thought everyone really enjoyed the experience and arrived early!

Intentionally or not this highlights two competing visions of airline service. Are you running an operation where passengers are, effectively, self-loading cargo — or are customers the starting point for everything you do?

American is rumored to be making several improvements to its inflight product including to its new domestic first class seat. One of the issues with the seat is lack of underseat storage because of the way the seat connects to the floor boards.

The MiQ seat is advertised as having extra floor storage space in one of its optional designs. Based on not choosing that design, and inconvenient placement of the power outlet, I’ve often wondered whether anyone really sat in the seat before it was purchased. American had terminated its contract with Zodiac due to production delays, needed new seats, and signed a new deal across all classes of service. Was a seat chosen because the operation needed a seat, or was the customer experience at the center of that decision?

Many of the rumors now, though, are of the airline going back and considering improvements that address customer experience needs. It’s cheaper to do that from the outset of course.

Four years ago then-Starwood CEO — and former United, Hyatt and Pan Am executive — Adam Aron shared a contrast of visions for customer service.

Aron offered that it was much easier for hotels to offer good customer service than for airlines to do so. Airlines are focused on safety as the undercurrent in everything they do, while hotels have the luxury to focus on customer experience. He relayed a story of his first days working at Pan Am and being made to watch a video about the Tenerife airport disaster. He was told, “Lives are at stake. Don’t screw up.”

Oscar Munoz, too, has blamed safety for poor customer service, suggesting that “the discipline and rigor necessary for safety has made the industry inflexible in its customer service practices.”

However there are gradations of customer experience across airlines, it isn’t all or nothing. 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.

It’s a mistake to start with the operation rather than the customer. It’s also a mistake to start with competitors rather than customers. Understand what your customers need, and use that to make decisions around how best to provide that.

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. To be fair, the customer experience often begins and ends with cabin formation. 10 across with 30” pitch internationally is going to be a bad experience regardless of anything else. If on board comfort was ever considered, most of us could overlook lack of service of amenities.

    They know this. Nobody really cares about “coffee or cookies”. We care about comfort.

  2. Singapore Airlines is a state owned carrier. Not to mention, Singapore was a third world back-water country who has only made it this far as a developed country because of the foresight of Lee Kuan Yew. Safety is paramount for SQ because the reputation of its’ brand and the country is at stake. SQ was and still is placing Singapore virtually on the world map today hence comfort, luxury and especially prestige are on the line. Hence no expense will be spared to compromise the brand of SQ. AA, UA and DL on the other hand are not state owned airlines. There is no national pride involved in their product. Its’ executives care only about their own bottom line. As a global superpower, the US does not require nor care about her reputation being compromised because she can afford not to. IMO, this is the difference.

  3. 1.) Agree w/ @Jeff’s comments above;

    2.) Oscar M & Scottie K’s “philosophy” is nothing more than the same “blame shifting”/ shaming passengers for bringing miseries on themselves by being cheapskates who won’t pay for extra space and dignity/humanity when flying (which of course is a total lie given how David Neeleman & Dave Barger disproved that old trope/full-on bs-a-thon that the same old liars say when the trot out American Airlines, TWA or Eastern Airlines failed attempts to offer more legroom in coach while each of those airlines had already been in their respective death spirals when those attempts to “compete” by offering more space aboard airlines that were already failing with JetBlue’s stunning success that was achieved by offering MORE LEGROOM; free-inflight, live satellite tv; courteous service; 1st checked bag free; and its bountiful snack baskets filled with unlimited goodies – all free and for the taking!

    Oh, PUH-LEASE!

    What Oscar, Scottie, et al, say is such self-serving pap to better pad their own bank accounts with stock options and “performance bonuses” by offering the worst possible products that they can get away with it’s not even funny.

    I mean, seriously, one of these guys is used to getting away with sleazy, self-serving things that he actually bought into a scheme offered by an unscrupulous contractor to pilfer sand from a public beach to replace the dunes that were washed away from the backyard of his multi-million dollar beachfront vacation home!

    So, me thinks this oh so convenient “blame shifting” of passengers should be viewed in terms of a “consider the source” sorta thing – and thus, rightfully taken with a grain of (NOT pilfered!) sand.

    Just sayin’

  4. I’d say a good amount of loyalty Delta builds is because of solid operations- you’re less likely to have a problem on one of their flights (assorted statistics back it up) and when there is an issue, customer-facing employees are given what can be a large amount of power to fix it, or at least reduce the pain of the situation. The occasional bringing out of the pizza and drink carts when there’s a significant flight delay doesn’t seem to be impacting their profitability much.

    Which typically makes for a less stressful travel day when I’m flying Delta compared to their peers. And for that less stress, I’m willing to tolerate a somewhat mediocre frequent flyer program and reduced cabin services (ie. lack of beverage service in economy on short hops) because I’ve had some really positive experiences with them going above and beyond to get me where I’m going, even when I’ve been a no status sort flying on a cheap or award ticket.

  5. @Gavin
    Why they Revisionist History?

    Lee Kuan Yew was a dictator whose family made their fortunes from the opium trade. His political party engaged and backed riots to suppress his competitors.

    Hardly a 3rd world back water country once the British turned it from a shithole to a major port.

    He also had the foresight to use near-slave laborers from Bangladesh to build the country.

  6. Don’t forget how the stock market basically FORCED JetBlue to remove many of their customer positive policies…and made them more like every other airline, charging for bags, having less seat pitch, etc. What is forcing this is pure greed, and the lack of the current system from promoting long term positives over short term gains.

  7. Ha! This is a fantastic post Gary.
    Keep calling out Oscar Munoz and especially Scott Kirby for their B.S.

  8. Does anybody want US airlines to be government owned under this current administration?

  9. Bottom line, all comes down to your employees. If they don’t feel it from the employer, they don’t transmit it to customers. It’s why Amazon has the highest customer satisfaction rating of any retailer. Why? Because there are no people to ruin the customer’s experience. As a consumer, you know what to expect and you get it every time. On airlines, customers know what to expect… But the issues arise when the employees do something different to that base expectation.

  10. this is why it is a huge mistake for UA to copy skypesos. because nobody will go out of their way to fly UA when they can get a better product on DL or even sometimes on WN.

  11. The nature of my work enabled me to see many examples of employee culture at various companies . At some companies people are cheerful , friendly , helpful . At other places they are unhappy , angry , resentful , unhelpful . I believe that the different atmosphere was influenced by the way management treated the employees . Another factor was whether bad behavior and poor attitudes were tolerated by management . It seems like once there is resentment , once trust has been broken it is very difficult to turn things around .and have a happy crew . Almost every one wants to do a good job if you help them do it .

    Blaming the customers , blaming traffic or parking or blaming the employees are weak excuses .

  12. Due to where I’ve lived (mostly near in MD and a bit in Phoenix) I’ve largely flown (domestically) USAir (back in the day), American West, and AA with a small amount of Southwest.

    Most recently I see less desirable flights from AA with some horrible connection times. 30 minutes connection in Charlotte late at night? (How often will I miss that and get stuck over night in Charlotte?). Obviously award flights have ridiculous over night connections.

    I had an out bound flight (direct BWI-PHX) last Sunday and the entertainment system was having issues. I managed one 90 minute movie during the nearly 5 hour flight. The FA was ok and we did get PDBs.

    Coming back the AA flights were either super early or had bad connection times. I decided to see what other airlines had and found a Delta flight through Detroit with a 90 minute connection. I haven’t flown Delta in 20+ years (I”m assuming I flew it before for my job but I don’t know) but they had a cheaper first class flight ($300 less than AA) so I gave it a shot.

    I have to admit the new Delta lounge in Terminal 3 at PHX is really nice. The individual tvs are good (can watch live sports), the FAs were nice and the lounge in Detroit wasn’t bad (a bit crowded Sunday evening).

    If things are close, I certainly would lean towards Delta. I don’t think any of the domestic airlines are anything special but things on AA right now seem to be very bad. And the award flights are just terrible (availability, over night connections, etc.).

    And who thinks a 30 minute connection in Charlotte is reasonable? Doors close 10 minutes early, it takes a good 10 minutes to get off the plane, so that leaves maybe 10 minutes to walk to the plane assuming the plane is on time?

  13. As much as I’ve bashed AA (like most of their pax), it’s becoming more evident to me that Delta and their superior operations should get my money despite their FF program.

    I’ve been very happy with Alaska but they have a limited footprint (although great partners). For other mainstream or intl flights, it really seems Delta is the best alternative.

    Ed Bastian’s positive comments really set the tone. Oscar has has seemingly announced his failure to understand his customers or how to represent a company. And Scott K is the harbinger of doom that we all knew him to be (thanks America West).

  14. What the Munoz and Kirby haters fail to realize — and what those guys DO realize — is that the worst part of the USA flying experience is NOT within the control of the airline. It is the TSA, the airport, the traffic to the airport and ATC that are FAR more likely to ruin your day. I do think DL employees are slightly more likely to be friendly than UA or AA employees. I do like Kind bars slightly more than pretzels. But these are trivial differences that few people will pay for. I wouldn’t pay for them. At this very moment, UAL is the most financially successful USA airline. Arguably, they provide the “worst” service of the three. Ponder that.

  15. @Chopsticks – let’s not bring Fake News to this site…DL is more profitable than UA, 2x the net income in 2018.

  16. @Chris@Oak- talk about revisionist history.

    Singapore was a $=!ithole after WW2- look it up sometime- the Japanese took all the assets, and left people basically eating off of trash dumps.

    Lee Kuan Yew was a middle class lawyer until he founded the PAP. You just completely made that stuff up about Opium trade.

    As for the original posting on SQ, also not really true. Lee Kuan Yew was instrumental in launching LCCs in Singapore, deeming that it was more important for Changi to be successful than SQ. Yeah, SQ is majority owned by Temasek, but that’s kinda like being owned by Berkshire Hathaway- no easy hand outs there.

    SQ invests into a premium product and service because it worked- they had the highest profit % of any airlines for years. Lately, not so much- profits have dropped and friends who work there anticipate some cuts coming for staff. Certainly selling miles to every program out there was a way to monetize their brand that will eventually lead to devaluation of KrisFlyer, at least. It’ll be interesting to see how the premium end of the market moves in the future, but make no mistake- SQ does what they do to make more money- plain and simple.

  17. Hello I like to post a video clip of evidence of seated passengers mistreated including entire plane of seniors, disabled, babies finally deplaned by a reckless captain of United Airlines SFO-SIN flight 29 back in Mar 2019 who was indifferent to our plight. This resulted from the shameful tone set indirectly by a totally unqualified CEO Munoz who should resign because of the bad example he has been setting shifting blame to traveling public for his airline low service standards leading some to bully seated passengers by essentially committing aviation felony lying a passenger is a “security threat” who simply commented the lousy service of an inflight attendant.
    Thank you.

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