One of my favorite quotes from Stephen Covey is (paraphrased), “you can’t be efficient with the customer.” For some reason, the airlines have recently decided that the path to profitability is to milk their customers of every last penny they have. The most likely cause of this was some pointy headed bean counter with a spreadsheet and too much coffee going to the management team with some presentation that sounded something like, “if all we do is charge customers $50 to check an extra bag, $125 for a 3rd bag, $80 for an overweight bag, and charge for snacks on our flights, we can make millions and pull ourselves out of the red!”
The reason I know these numbers is I literally just went through this experience on Delta Airlines. I was on a week and a half trip to Europe and was on my way home from Zurich when I got into Salt Lake City too late to continue on to Boise. I grabbed a hotel for the night and headed to the airport in the morning. After traveling tens of thousands of miles, Delta wanted to charge me $175 for 2 extra checked bags on the very last leg of my journey – a 45 minute flight. This was the result of 2 cuckoo clocks I bought in the Zurich airport (I know, I am a sucker for that kind of stuff). If I had made it to the SLC airport 3 hours earlier, I would have been checked all the way through, no problem. If I hadn’t bought the cuckoo clocks, no problem. But I just happened to get little miss grumpy as my check in agent. After about 15 minutes of sweet talk and a discussion with her supervisor, I was finally able to reduce my punishment for flying Delta reduced from $175 to $50.
This brought to mind a few thoughts, to say the least. There is a reason Southwest has had 35 straight years of profitability in an anemic industry. They focus on happy customers first and operational efficiency second. There is a reason Southwest was the only airline identified in the book “Creating Customer Evangelists”. They even improved their experience recently by creating a more orderly “cattle call” process. In a time when every other airline if following Delta’s suit and looking for ways to bilk their customers, Southwest is making the experience even more enjoyable. Who do you think will win out in the end?
The second thought that I had was how too many employees hide behind “the policy”. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the worst things you can say to a customer is “there is nothing I can do, that is our policy”. Any business who doesn’t empower their employees to solve customer problems on the spot will “policy” themselves right out of business. There are just too many other options to deal with difficult companies.
One airline who did pleasantly surprise me was British Airlines. The service was great, there was no nickel and diming, the seating was much more comfortable than most American airlines, and they even served lunch on a 2 hour flight. I would fly them again in a heartbeat. It is not hard to stick out when most of your competition sucks.
In such a competitve marketplace, airlines can’t afford to trade customer service for small revenue gains because the impact to the bottom line will always be disastrous. When will they get the hint?