Pilots can be and should be crucial allies for improving the customer experience. Airlines are in the business of trust. Passengers must be able to trust them. Otherwise they go out of business. Our genes detest flying. Most people feel discomfort at certain moments before or during the flight. About 5% feel fear.
Clean, well painted aircraft with a modern and well maintained interior are key to generating trust. Most passengers consider an aircraft “old” and therefore “risky” when the interior is shabby.
The next factor of concern are the pilots. Who are those guys from whom our lives will depend for the next few hours? For many, there is nothing more insuring to many passengers than a mature captain whose grey hair suggests experience and proven long term survival.
Some pilots are really good when talking to the passengers, giving them some essential information about flight path and conditions and explaining briefly (!) certain noises or manoeuvres which might generate concerns among the more sensitive passengers. Some are even empathic enough not to talk in the middle of the flight when many passengers finally managed to take a nap.
This must be managed with care and sensitivity as not all pilots are born speakers, not even after a couple of training sessions. This must be respected, as well as pilots should respect the concerns of their passengers. I remember three really unfortunate pilot “speeches”. Pilots must be aware that the world looks different from the cockpit than from the passenger cabin. Situations which pilots know to be under control may seem a huge threat to their customers if they are informed improperly. Pilots frequently use irony as a way to relieve their own tensions, but, dear Captain or First Office, please don’t use irony when talking publicly on the aircraft. Most passengers will get confused and therefore concerned.
I remember a final approach to New York JFK which was suddenly aborted. Not a big deal, pretty routine stuff for pilots, but a cause of deep concern for many passengers. When the pilot started talking only to make a seemingly sympathetic joke about the air traffic controller who had brought him so close to the preceding aircraft, the people around me became as white as chalk.
Lessons learnt: please integrate ALL departments in your seamless Customer Experience work. Otherwise, your customers will receive conflicting messages and rather than reinforcing the brand, a well meaning but unfortunate “pilot’s speech” can severely harm all your previous efforts. The perceived safety is the first filter in the mind of airline customers when starting their buying process. Make sure that pilots are aware that they are an important part of this communication effort.
Unfortunately, some really irresponsible union leaders have used historically allusions to supposed safety infractions as a weapon to strengthen their position in collective negotiation processes. Airlines operating under the supervision of US, EU and most other major countries’ aviation authorities are safe. Full stop. If someone believes the contrary, his or her obligation is to inform these authorities. Only they can determine objectively if the accusations are right or wrong, and act accordingly. When these claims emerge while an airline is negotiating with pilot unions, you can be pretty sure that the accusations are just a perverse negotiation tool, aimed at undermining public confidence in this airline. I am not sure what can be done about it, but some unionised pilots show every three years or so amazing suicidal instincts, frightening away passengers who have to pay their paychecks… Of course, this is not a generalised behaviour, but it still happens too often.
Airlines which managed to build a good relationship with the pilots, based on mutual confidence, are much less affected by this type of behavior. Implicating pilots in the Customer Experience design process can help to improve their sensitivity for the airline business as a whole.
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