Don’t Be Like The Airlines

I’m a firm believer that you can learn so much about how to run your business by watching how other companies and industries run theirs so badly.

One of my prime whipping boys is the entire airline travel industry.  The crappy experience runs through almost every aspect of the industry – no nook or cranny is left untouched by the stench of terrible customer service.

I’ve written about how badly airlines treat their customers before, but because I’ve been spending so much more time than normal on planes, going to and from airports over the past six months it’s become even more noticeable for me.

Everything about air travel complete and utterly sucks now.

Let’s look at today’s flight.

I was catching a 7am flight from Sydney to Brisbane – I’ve taken this flight probably fifteen times since July and never once have I been anywhere near later.  I live about 15-20 minutes away from the airport and at that time of the morning, all of the traffic is going the other direction.

Except this morning.  It took about ten minutes to get to the general vicinity of the airport, giving me well over a half an hour before they would even consider closing the gate.  I noticed as we were pulling off the freeway into the drive to the airport that there was a bit of traffic about, so I hopped on my airline’s app on my phone and checked in for my flight.

Then we waited.  The five-minute drive from the freeway offramp to the terminal took 40 minutes.  As a result, I missed my flight.

In the lead up to missing my flight I made an effort to try and call the airline to explain the situation because if I were stuck in traffic being so early, there would have to be dozens of other people stuck too.

I did what any good passenger with a frequent flyer plan would do and I called them.  After bouncing through three or four prompts, I was told that their office wasn’t open yet.  Planes were coming and going from the airport, but my airline’s frequent flyer customer number – not manned.

As we arrived at the terminal, I simply walked over to the queue for the customer service desk to explain my situation and sure enough, there were 25 people in front of me, all with the same problem.  My turn came, I explained the situation and that’s when the stupidity went into overdrive.

The airline acknowledged that there was higher than normal traffic in the airport and that some of the problems were caused by construction in the middle of the main intersection, but they were unwilling to give me a free transfer to the next available flight.

This is where the stupidity circus went into overdrive.

Because I had checked in for the flight, the lateness became “my fault” so I was now technically a “no show” because they couldn’t resell my seat.  I explained to them that the self-serve kiosks close 45 minutes before the flight and if you check in when you arrive at the airport, they only have two or three service staff helping hundreds of people – you would actually end up being late and missing your flight because of their poor customer service.

The woman looked at me with an exasperated expression and said, “That’s why we recommend you check in an hour before your flight at the airport.”

I laughed at her.  I didn’t even try to hide my contempt for her statement.

“No, you don’t.  Right here on my confirmation it says I should check-in at least a half an hour before the flight.  In the app it says that as well.  In fact, everything your entire airline produces tells people to check-in at least a half an hour before the flight.  Nowhere do you tell people to check-in at the airport an hour before the flight.”

She ignored me and offered to get me on the next flight leaving in 40 minutes for $120 because I was a “no-show”.  I paid the money and made my trip – at least I had the whole row to myself.

There’s nothing good about airline travel now except when it’s over.  You get to the gates, they don’t board on time, they give you no information.  They tell people to board in a certain order, people ignore it, they don’t care.  The airports themselves are like crowded shopping malls with the inconvenience of planes taking off.

And the security… Oh man.  Seriously, why the radioactivity scan?  I’ve seen that pick up one person one time and this older lady explained that she’d had an x-ray earlier in the morning.

The entire security process has moved into the realm of the surreal – a woman in the adjacent queue this morning had to take off her boots, her belt, her earrings and her jewellery to not set off the alarm.  It was frustrating for everyone involved except for the mindless unionised drones working security.

Everything about this industry is broken.  They treat their customers like self-loading freight and the whole experience is just not enjoyable.

I recently had a somewhat similar experience online – I was a subscriber of a service, I wasn’t really having much luck getting it to work and everything about it sucked.  I couldn’t figure out how to fix my problem and their help was useless.  Their site had an online chat session that was never staffed and no clearly visible way of contacting them.  I finally found an email address where my question went unanswered for a week.  Finally, when I went to their site and cancelled I got an email from them within four hours asking me why I’d cancelled.

It was ludicrous.  You can’t treat your customers like crap and just expect that to be ok – it’s just not a nice way to behave.  Eventually, your customers start to resent you and your service much like I described the airlines.  Except, your product or service probably isn’t as much as a necessary evil as an airline.  You don’t have that level of stickiness.

So here’s an idea, the next time you think about your customer experience ask yourself, “How can I make this process less like an airline?  What can I do to deliver an experience that is completely the opposite of what how an airline treats its customers?”

It’s like the George Costanza method for running your business – do the opposite of everything that an airline does.  I bet that would work like a charm.

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