Oneworld, Star Alliance, SkyTeam – all three global alliances claim that serving customers better is their raison d’être. Passengers of now merged BA – Iberia, but also their North American Oneworld stepbrother American Airlines, are currently bombarded with marketing messages, suggesting a seamless travel experience and presenting their tie-up as “the next big thing in aviation”.
I decided to do a reality check on a recent trip between Europe and the US, buying the ticket from American Airlines, involving flights operated both by AA and Iberia.
My first frustration arose already during the booking process at aa.com: AA outright prevented me from booking the seats I wanted. Why? They reserve the best seats for their best customers. Fair enough, I thought. As a Oneworld Sapphire premium customer I thought to be entitled to get one of the unoccupied front cabin window seats I wanted.
I was not. AA’s call centre said that my Sapphire level was Iberia Plus Sapphire, not AAdvantage Sapphire. “The system treats you as an ordinary customer”, a nice lady explained, and there was no way to “overrule the system” to comply with the expectations created by Oneworld’s advertising.
Next issue. I could not select any seat at all on an Iberia operated segment. “No, sir,” the lady continued her explanations, “we have Sabre and they use Amadeus. We can’t assign seats on the other system”.
During the trip, things did not get better.
The guard at the Madrid security check fast lane sent me back to the regular queue, despite showing my Iberia Plus Gold card “because I was not flying on Iberia”. I tried to argue that I was on Iberia, but under an AA flight number, I still gained no admittance. “No IB code, no access”.
Some hours later, already in the US, I was finally upbeat and prepared to forget all the previous nuisances. Before boarding a connecting flight, I was told that the flight was overbooked and, as a premium customer, I would receive an upgrade. Finally! They had not only recognised my premium level but also acted to improve my travel experience!
But soon I started to notice that something was going wrong. The agent, increasingly nervous, started to hit computer keys, shake his head and bring in a supervisor who finally sentenced that the announced upgrade would not be possible. Yes, “the system” (the superior airline divinity) had recognised me as a premium customer, but “it” had no way to change my assigned seat to another class because my frequent flyer profile was on a “different system”.
After this experience, my only remaining hope is that AA’s escalating dispute with its own Sabre stepchild will ultimately drive it into the arms of Amadeus (or Iberia into the arms of Sabre; as a customer I don’t care – I just hate to fall in the chasms between them).
What a failure! Hadn’t these three airlines just inverted millions in trying to convince me that I would be equally welcome on any of their flights? Unfortunately, one more time, the driving forces behind the “superalliance” process are the corporate operational and financial power cores within the alliance partners. But ignoring the customers leads to “fatal system crashes”.
I am sorry to insist: without a true focus on the integrated customer experience, without producing a credible value proposal, passengers will pass on alliances.
To obtain this focus, airlines need to seriously build up a “customer power core” within their corporate structure and decision processes. Otherwise, they will not be able to cash in the intended ROI from their heavy investment in alliances.