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.