Unique Approach to Customer Satisfaction part 1
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Our travel experiences are amazingly
similar, whether on a big or small plane, and no matter
which the airline.
The airlines say this is
due to competition. But maybe it is due to
lack of competition.
In most industries, a key
ingredient in the success of each business is its relationship
with its customers. The more loyal and content their
customers, the more successful the company.
And then there are the airlines.
Have you ever encountered any other industry that hates its
customers so much?
More to the point, have you ever
encountered any other industry that can safely and without
consequence mistreat its customers so egregiously?
Why are the airlines so different
to the rest of the world? Do customer relations really truly
not make any difference at all to the airlines and their
profitability? Is there anything we can do to change this?
Part One of a Two Part Article Series
Please note this is the first part of a
two part article on this topic.
There's a link at the bottom of this
part to take you on to part two where we cite
facts and figures in support
of our contention that the airlines don't care about customer
service because they experience no consequences from providing bad
'I'll Never Fly That Airline Again!"
Maybe you yourself, after a particularly
egregious example of poor customer service, have resolved never
to fly a particular airline, ever again, under any
If it isn't something you've resolved yourself,
you for sure know someone who refuses to ever be seen on an
airplane belonging to the airline that aroused his ire.
And whether it be you or someone else, the
chances are that you are genuinely withholding your business, for
at least some period of time, and you're also going out of your
way to discourage friends and colleagues from patronizing that
You know, from mentally adding up the
tickets you're not buying from the offending airline, that you are
costing them thousands of dollars. Multiply that by other
similarly upset former customers, and surely the airline must be
losing many millions of dollars a year from activist customers
such as yourself? Doesn't that mean the airlines should be
more sensitive to their customers and how they treat them?
But does this make any difference at all to
the airline? One clue as to the answer to that question is
provided by the complete indifference shown by the airlines to
their customer losses - clearly the airlines themselves don't care
if you abandon them.
Why is this - an attitude so much at odds
with most of modern western business practice and ethics?
Customer Service - Essential in Modern
We all know that one of the modern day
tenets of business success is 'the customer is always right' and
the associated imperative need to give excellent customer service.
One of the things that defines both Costco
and the Nordstrom Department Store chain is their
no-questions-asked approach to returns. Bring anything back
at any time, used or unused, with or without receipt and with or
without original packing, and you'll get a full refund.
These two companies are outstanding
business successes. Clearly their refund policies and
generally excellent customer service standards have not hurt them
at all - quite the opposite.
This is a very short section of this
article, because the concept of customer service is so obvious and
so universally accepted.
The Airlines - A Clear Exception to this
You can see similar examples of customer
service excellence, and the positive impact it has on the company
providing it, in many other
aspects of our lives. But when you start looking at the
airlines, you'll look until you're blue in the face for anything
approaching these standards.
No questions asked refunds of unused
tickets? Full value refunds of partially used tickets?
Or how about even the ability to change a
ticket without penalty?
How can Nordstroms let you bring back a
dress and swap it for a different one at no penalty (a courtesy
with a clear cost associated with it), but an
airline refuses to let you swap a ticket for traveling on this
flight for a ticket traveling on that other flight (a change that
costs the airline almost nothing to allow)?
And that's just the start of the ugly
experience that envelopes us whenever we choose to travel
somewhere. Rude or no service at all when we check in,
delays and cancellations, unfair and outright dishonest fees and
charges, the requirement to waste huge amounts of our time
checking in hours before a flight, the lack of comfort on planes,
their rude staff, and so on all the way through to finally
retrieving your baggage (which hopefully didn't get lost or
destroyed) and leaving the airport at your destination.
The current example at United
The most recent example of an airline that
seems to totally not care at all is the merged United/Continental.
With now almost a month of appalling
problems flowing from a very poorly executed transition from two
different computer systems to one unified system, the only
communications from the airline have been ones to inappropriately
claim the transition has been a great success - a version of
reality that is completely at odds with that being suffered by
many of their most valuable customers (ie the highest yielding
most frequent travelers).
Why is United so complacently doing nothing
to assuage the massive unhappiness that its most valuable
customers are currently feeling? Does it not care?
Does it feel its customers are captives and unable to shift their
business to another airline?
Negative customer attitudes pervade all levels
Although this is the most recent example of
complacency that clearly flows from the very top of the airline
down to the lower levels; we also see it at every other level of
an airline's operation.
The rude flight attendant who treats you
like dirt. A string of excuses/lies about why a flight is
being delayed and then cancelled, together with a refusal to allow
you to transfer to a more convenient flight (perhaps on another
airline) as soon as the scheduled flight starts to get delays.
The baggage handler that treats your suitcase as if it were
indestructible. The pilot who instantly sides with his
flight attendants, even though he really truly knows they are in
the wrong, and offloads a passenger who dared to complain at being
friendly fun 'tell all' book written by a flight attendant who
makes a (second) living out of being a nice friendly person shows
a generally negative attitude to her customers.
The truth is there's almost no-one,
anywhere in the airline, from the tarmac, to the cockpit, to the
concourse, to the C-level suite, who really cares about the
One has to believe that airline executives
aren't totally completely stupid. So why hasn't any airline
executive decided to make his the 'good' airline and to apply
basic principles of customer courtesy and care?
Here's the reason why.
The Airlines' Rule of Customer Disservice -
What Goes Around Comes Around
The situation is simply this. When
you swear off (let's say) AA for ever after a bad experience, you
go and give your business to (let's say) DL instead.
But, truth to tell, DL is far from perfect
either (and for that matter, AA isn't 100% venal). So, more
or less coincident with you leaving AA and switching to DL, some
other unhappy traveler leaves DL and goes to (let's say) UA.
To continue the picture, someone also gets
upset at UA and goes to US, while US in turn has someone leave
them and switch to AA.
So - what just happened? Basically,
nothing at all. Each airline lost a customer, and each
airline gained a customer. Net result - nothing.
As long as the airlines all maintain a
similar standard of good or bad service, they're going to more or
less keep their market shares, even though the people who make up
those market shares will shift and change over time.
As we know, the airlines slavishly copy
each other in almost every respect. Luggage policies?
Change fees? Fares? Frequent Flier Programs?
Seat size and pitch? You name it, there's precious little
difference between any airline and any other airline.
The Similarities Between Airlines Are Not
Caused by Competition
A big lie the airlines seek to perpetrate
is that the similarity between the airlines is due to competition
creating a level playing field. That is nonsense. It
is lack of competition that has created identical generic
Think of any truly competitive field - the
different products are profoundly different rather than all
exactly the same. Imagine if all breakfast cereals came in
the same size box, had the same ingredients, color, and flavor,
and were sold at the same price?
Imagine if all cars were identical in size
and shape and features and price. If all clothing was
And so on, through just about every other
aspect of our lives. This is simply because we, ourselves,
are all different too, and so successful competitive businesses
cater to our different preferences, price sensitivities, and so
on, by creating different products, each addressing a 'sweet spot'
in the market.
so slavishly copying each other does not show competition, it
shows a resolute lack of competition (and lack of imagination).
Perhaps the airlines are terrified of competition,
because each airline secretly feels inadequate, and fears that if
real competition came along, they would lose out to the competing
airline. They'd rather keep and protect what they have than
risk losing it in an attempt to try and get more through real
And so any time a potential competitor does emerge,
the established airlines 'compete' in the only way they know - they drive fares down
to massively unprofitable levels, they schedule flights at the
same time as the new airline, and they starve the new airline out
As soon as they've done that, everything
goes back to normal. Fares go back to their previous levels,
new flights are removed, and so on.
The Swings and Roundabouts of Lost Customers
Whether formal or informal, it seems the
airlines have a sort of unwritten agreement - 'We won't rock the
boat if you don't rock the boat either', and perhaps the most
obvious reason for this and outcome from it is the present
situation where 'what goes around, comes around' - the outraged
passengers each airline loses today are replaced by one of the
other airlines' outraged passengers tomorrow.
It is a zero sum game, in other words.
What the airlines lose in the 'swings' they make up in the
An Attempt to Prove or Disprove this Theory
Okay, so it sounds almost unbelievable,
doesn't it, that the airlines deliberately choose to ignore the
generally accepted western free market business practices of
caring for their customers.
But let's look at the facts. They are
unchallengeable and seem to bear this out.....
Please click to the second part of this
two part article series for
an analysis of airline
customer relations behavior and its impact on the airlines
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29 Mar 2012, last update
30 May 2021
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.