Starwood CEO Adam Aron had an interesting story to tell when I interviewed him on stage in Atlanta.
- He began his career at Pan Am, where he eventually launched their first frequent flyer program.
When he started at the airline he was taken into a dark room and put in front of a screen where he was shown a two hour documentary on the runway collision of two Boeing 747s at Tenerife in 1977, known as the deadliest accident in aviation history.
A KLM flight tried to take off while Pan Am’s 747 was on the runway. Everyone onboard the KLM 747 was killed, and 335 people onboard the Pan Am aircraft lost their lives.
As the video ended his colleague walked into the room, and told him that every decision at the airline matters. Lives are at stake. Don’t screw up.
And that to him is the difference between airlines and hotels. Airlines are focused on safety as the undercurrent in everything they do, while hotels have the luxury to focus on customer experience.
I’m not sure that I agree with Aron on this. There are gradations of customer experience across airlines, it isn’t all or nothing.
And 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.
But there’s no question that service isn’t number one for an airline. And they’re really, really good at the thing that is.