The airline industry's service challenge


Leland Pillsbury
Leland Pillsbury

As a jet pilot, I understand and appreciate the critical importance of a "rules based" culture. In the cockpit, well-trained pilots are the best safety device on a plane, and the key is to assess a situation and then follow a prescribed checklist of options.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board have proven over decades of accident investigations that failure to follow the rules, or "pilot error," is the overwhelming cause of airplane accidents. In turn, the ever-increasing rigor of FAA-mandated pilot training has resulted in the U.S. airline industry having the best safety record in the world.

It moves millions of people safely each day, and in a broad view, that is nothing short of a logistics miracle. It took years to perfect the system -- and many talented experts to make it work.

Becoming an airline pilot requires many hours of training, certification and testing, and the professionals who run our airports require no less.

The airlines themselves -- controversial, perhaps, for not providing great shareholder value over time -- are nevertheless masterful at making sure planes are well fueled, equipped with the right items onboard and take off and land safely and on time.

However, this rules-based culture and philosophy is not the most appropriate system for the back of the plane. Everyone is aware of some recent high-profile incidents: the doctor who was physically dragged off a plane prior to departure, a passenger attacked with a stroller, parents told they'd be put in jail and their children placed in foster care, and more.

As terrible as these incidents are, they are relatively rare. However, the everyday experience that most travelers encounter is among the worst-rated service experiences in American industry.

It's not as though the airlines haven't tried to improve their customer-facing experience, beginning at the top: In the 1980s and '90s, Eastern Airlines hired Frank Borman, a former astronaut, national hero and aeronautical genius, to run the airline; United bought Westin Hotels and promoted its CEO, Richard Ferris, to head its operations; Northwest hired first Fred Malek and then John Dasburg, both from Marriott. And still, little changed.

Today, customer satisfaction with airline service remains woefully low.

I believe that trying to effectuate change by changing leadership and corporate structures is not the whole story.

Building customer satisfaction starts with understanding the customer, understanding how you see them -- or to paraphrase what the great advertising executive David Ogilvy said many years ago, understanding that you don't really have "passengers" onboard. You have your parents, your next-door neighbors, your high school English teacher, your extended family.

From rules-based to customer-centric

Whereas the airlines' rules-based culture requires processing and applying lots of information on a logistical grid, delivering excellent service requires anticipating a customer's wants and needs, identifying the critical response in a given moment and understanding how to translate a company's broad goals and objectives into concrete actions that provide customer satisfaction.

In other words, it requires not processing and logistical skill but empathy, personal interconnection with the customer and, in the best of cases, a skill that I call "seeing around the corner."

Here, the airlines have failed miserably. Think about the difference between being "processed" at an airline ticket counter and the service you get at an Apple Store.

At the counter, the agent greets you (if he or she greets you at all) with a grunt. You are separated from the agent by a long, nondescript counter and have probably stood in line for quite some time. Rarely does the agent make eye contact. He or she is punching keys fast and tied to the computer screen.

You are asked for information, identification; the goal is to move you down the line as quickly as possible. If you push hard enough, you might get an answer to a specific question, but in general, you feel like a widget on an assembly line.

In contrast, at the Apple Store, you're greeted by a company agent as soon as you walk in the door. No lines, no shuffling of feet. The agents move freely and greet you personally, with eye contact and perhaps a handshake. The focus is immediately on you, the customer: What brings you here today? Did you make an appointment? How can we help? Then the company agent speaks personally about your particular issues and needs, takes care of addressing the needs or quickly refers you to someone who can help.

In other words, whereas the airline agent treats you like a reservation number, the Apple Store treats you like a guest, which is by nature a personal relationship.

The same can be said, for example, of Disney, whose culture understands how to personalize guest visits better than most travel companies.

In thinking about how to address the gulf between rule-based and guest-driven environments, airlines could look to the cruise industry, where the safety and security of the ship depends on a tightly adhered-to set of rules and procedures. But the delivery of high service levels to the passengers requires flexibility and customization.

The cruise lines have addressed this by having the ship's captain and the ship's hotel manager report separately to two different organizations. They've figured out that they need two very different cultures to accomplish the goals they have of safe cruising and a great cruise experience.

I understand that there are significant differences between airlines and cruise lines, and that airports are different environments than Apple retail outlets.

But great service is great service, no matter what the context, and today more than ever, consumers are accustomed to being at the center of the value and service chain, not an afterthought.

How can the airline industry -- and for that matter, other travel industry providers -- adapt their business models and procedures to the needs of an ever-changing and more demanding consumer public? And how can they do so without sacrificing the efficiencies and rules-based mastery that enables them to achieve logistical excellence?

I'll tackle those questions next week in part two of this column.

Leland Pillsbury is managing director at VC Thayer Ventures and a lifelong entrepreneur and innovator in travel and hospitality. He was a senior executive at Marriott, where he headed strategic planning, then executive vice president. With his wife, Mary, he founded the Pillsbury Institute For Hospitality Entrepreneurship at Cornell University.


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