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Posted May 17, 2017
One of the toughest annual competitions to be ranked #1 is not football or basketball; rather the ranking that has the fiercest competition is the “Worst Airline in the US.” While air travel has been considered one of the most unpleasant experiences a person can encounter and our society has just accepted it as the norm, it does appear that over the past couple of months, air rage has hit an all time high.
In the past few weeks, we have seen horrific stories appearing regularly in the news and all over social media. Everything from the United Airlines passenger being bloodied and dragged off the plane to make room for a United crewmember who needed a seat, to an American Airline Flight Attendant who dared a passenger to punch him after the passenger stood up for a woman the flight attendant appeared to be bullying. Delta Airlines got into the act by removing a family with a toddler from a plane. Last week, police were called to break up a riot with Spirit Airline passengers at the Fort Lauderdale Airport after Spirit had to cancel 9 flights due to their pilots striking. And American Airlines just announced they are designing their planes to give passengers even less legroom.
The major US Airlines have been abusing passengers for decades and there has been nothing anyone can do about it. For one, nearly everyone in the industry provides the exact same experience; horrible Customer service, apathetic airline employees who do not enjoy their jobs, who have not been trained on hospitality, and forced to hide behind a mountain of policy and endless red tape. It only got worse when the major airlines started merging together, giving the public even less options.
Worst of all, up until recently, it was a Customer’s word against the gigantic airlines. “The problem with the flying experience is across the board — we all know it’s a terrible experience, starting from the minute I go on the computer to try to figure out which flight I want to take,” said Rep. Michael Capuano (MA) during a recent Congressional hearing on the airline industry crisis. “We’re kinda sick of it. We’ve gotta fly, you’ve got us,” Capuano sighed. “And if you wanna keep treating us this way, fine. I guess we can only do so much, but there will come a day when Congress won’t accept it anymore on behalf of the American people. We have a problem that shouldn’t be as bad and unpleasant as it is, and you’re the only people that can fix it.”
The entire industry is to blame, from the airports, to Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to the airlines. The airlines have beaten it into our heads that they can do anything they want to us and if we give them any backtalk, they can deny us boarding for being "disorderly." They have held the ultimate leverage over passengers; passengers need to get to where they are going, so basically it was “shut up and deal with it” or you are screwed.
It is an ugly cycle. Very few companies in this industry are truly concerned about their employees or Customer experience. It starts with the employee experience. The vast majority of employees associated with air travel do not like their jobs. Pilots of Spirit Airlines are currently striking against the company for poor wage pay and for being understaffed. Furthermore, the airlines do not invest in any Customer service training for their employees, and are constantly adding more and more policy that is company focused, easiest and least expensive for the company, with no consideration for the Customer. The employees are forced to hide behind these polices which further infuriates the Customers, who then take it out on the airline employees.
One of the few smart things that has come out of the mouth of United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, after the recent passenger removal scandal, “We created a situation at our doing that we should not have done. Our employees did not have the authority to do what was right or use their common sense.”
Passengers have had to deal with overbooking, crappy food, and exorbitant change fees. “How much does it cost you to change someone’s booking?” asked Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR). “You’re charging someone 200, 300 bucks to change a ticket; what’s your real cost?” United charged over $800 million in change fees last year.
There is a reason why every Customer service book features stories about Southwest Airlines. The airline industry crisis makes Southwest Airlines even more of an anomaly. Southwest Airlines stands out so much because their employees are happy, friendly, funny, and often entertaining. Their flights run on time because they are the industry leader in boarding and onboarding efficiency. I can never understand how the moment a Southwest plane stops moving, the door opens and passengers start deplaning. Yet on every other airline, it has to be an average of ten minutes or more before the door opens up.
Talk about being Zero Risk. Recently I was traveling on Southwest and the flight was delayed for well over an hour. I was concerned that it would get cancelled and I wanted to start working on back up plans. I tweeted to Southwest and to my amazement within a few minutes they responded answering my questions. The flight eventually did take off. Even more to my delight, the next day I received an email from Southwest giving me a ‘LUV Voucher’ towards my next flight.
Southwest doesn’t nickel and dime their Customers. They are the only airline that doesn’t charge Customers to change their flights, and while other airlines are charging passengers for checked bags, Southwest is not. Several years ago, the airlines said the reason they started charging a checked baggage fee was to make up for the rise in fuel costs. However, Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags and rarely can you find a United fare lower than a Southwest fare. “We feel like if you’re going to travel, it just makes sense that you can bring your clothes along,” said Bob Jordan, Southwest’s Chief Commercial Officer. “We believe that we get more business overall because we do not charge fees.”
by giving each Customer facing employee more autonomy to make it right.
The power of social media may be the most powerful tool the public has against the airline industry. The truth is, the airline industry isn’t conducting itself any worse today than it always has. The difference is now it is being caught on smart phones and going viral, getting on the news, which creates an uproar with the public that is forcing the airlines to be held accountable for their actions. The smartphone video camera has brought democracy to air travel. No longer can passengers be pushed around or abused without airlines being held accountable by the millions of people who can and will watch the footage once it's leaked online. And with video evidence, there is little room for the airline to manipulate the narrative or turn the story into a he-said, she-said situation.
With all the attention now being put on the airline industry crisis, the government needs to get more involved by creating standards for employment practices as well as stringent Customer service standards all airline organizations must meet.
In addition, organizations need to really care about creating a better working culture for their employees. If companies like Southwest and Virgin Airlines can be a great place to work and maintain strong profits, why can’t other airlines? Not only will a great working environment reduce turnover and burnout, it will also create happier and more engaged employees, which will result in better Customer service and start attracting more people to want to work in the airline industry.
Finally, all these organizations need to commit to Customer service training. Starting from actual airport employees, TSA security, to airline staff. Increasing employee Service Aptitude by teaching them about genuine hospitality, teaching them to be more empathetic and compassionate towards the passengers. This starts by understanding what a Day In The Life of a traveler is. They need to deliver the Five E’s, use the passenger’s name, and be incredible at service recovery when things go wrong,
John R. DiJulius III best-selling author, consultant, and keynote speaker, is the President of The DiJulius Group, the leading Customer experience consulting firm in the nation. He blogs on Customer experience trends and best practices. Learn more about The DiJulius Group or The Secret Service Summit, America's #1 Customer Service Conference.