The airline industry is an amazing place to live in. Everything happens in real time. Basically, you make it or break it in the last 30 minutes before the door of an aircraft closes for departure, or in the 30 minutes of patience a customer is willing to spend to get any luggage issues fixed after arriving.
This has created adrenaline driven organizations, composed by fast moving people, highly qualified at solving those problems managers allow them to solve, but also at bypassing those managers chose not to empower them for.
On the other side of the business, huge cash flows and razor thin profit margins have created also a very particular corporate culture. Many airline entrepreneurs even admit privately, ideally after a couple of Martinis, that their business is sexy, fun and provides them with a great social and political platform. Blinded by the cash flow, they expect some miraculous cash windfall at some point which, however, rarely materialises. Of course, there are exceptions.
But many things have changed in recent years. A whole bunch of new generation airlines were started up or taken over by smart business people with powerful financial backers. They taught the aviation world the shocking lesson that airlines could eventually make some good money pretty consistently if they only gave customers what they wanted.
Ryanair, Air Berlin, Vueling, LAN, TAM, GOL, Volaris, Jetblue, Virgin America, Emirates, Air Arabia, Singapore Airlines, Tiger Airways, Jetstar or Virgin Blue are serving very different markets and segments. However, they have one thing in common: they have been designed around specific customer preferences. They serve customers who want to fly on the cheapest ticket (Ryanair), get great service at a fair price (Air Berlin), travel on the Mediterranean’s hippest airline (Vueling), get superior service on very long flights (LAN), and so on.
They forced the traditional network carriers into believing that they not only had to cut costs but also service levels to compete. Bad service at not so great prices eroded their brand meaning and yield premiums, ultimately leaving them no escape other than making investment bankers rich with their mergers.
If mergers create any value for customers (and – surprise! – therefore for the companies) or if it provides the combined airline just with the opportunity to extort a greater number of involuntary passengers left with no viable air transportation alternative, remains to be seen.
But even after the Long March of turning the industry upside down, from a customer perspective it remains hard to encounter one key asset each and every passenger would be willing to pay for: common sense.
Even successful airlines insist in turning off customer enthusiasm about their offering by showing amazing gaps between brand promise and service delivery. They also annoy travellers charging ridiculous service fees for value-less “services” or “buggy” internet processes. But, most importantly, airlines are really brilliant at screwing it up when a passenger has a problem, frequently caused by the airline itself. Isn’t it basic common sense make helping customers in distress a top priority, even be it only for the purpose of not handing them over to a competitor on the next trip? I hoped it were…
Creating a great travel experience is a comprehensive design job. However, the fast, customer facing airport environment remains full of last-minute improvisation and lost service opportunities. Under-empowered, often subcontracted employees are unable to give passengers what they expect from the airline brand they represent. These employees feel all the heat of the operational urgency, angry passengers, self-concerned union bosses and distracted managers, occupied with meeting financial and operational goals rather than seriously wanting to improve customer metrics.
From all what I have observed in different companies, it’s the lack of specific leadership which prevents most airlines to companies customers not only tolerate, but really love. We will come back to this in the future.
It’s not the metrics nor tens of pages of consultants’ recommendations what will fix the customer experience mess most airlines are facing. It’s the lack of a dedicated, C-level leader responsible exclusively for “seating the customer in the executive board” (to begin with).
Why do we lose even the most basic customers preferences so frequently out of sight? The discussion is open.