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Why do the airlines not care if we like them or not - they don't even seem to care if we leave them or not.

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The Airlines' 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 service.

'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 circumstances.

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 airline, either.

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 Business?

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 Rule

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?  Ha!

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 of airlines

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 treated rudely.

Even the 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 airline's customers.

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 airlines.

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 closely similar.

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.

The airlines 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 competition.

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 of business.

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 'roundabouts'.

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 themselves.

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Originally published 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.



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