On a speaking trip to Holland last week, I flew United Airlines. I’ve often criticized the firm for their constant assault on passenger amenities and their stony silence in social media channels. As trips went, this one wasn’t too bad, though United penny-pinching was perodically evident.
The effects of charging for checked bags was evident on one flight. It was a smaller plane, and all the rolling overnight bags people were carrying on had to be taken at the gate and stowed in a cargo area. This resulted in a ridiculous post-landing scrum in the jetway as 50 passengers lined the narrow space trying to recover their bags. A policy that forces passengers to carry luggage on the plane and then subjects them to stand on a jetway jostling for position and making it difficult for other passengers to exit makes no sense (unless you are an accountant, perhaps).
Even on flights with adequate overhead storage space in the cabin, boarding is slowed dramatically when nearly everyone is carrying luggage that needs to be lifted and squeezed into the bins. Ironically, instead of providing more flexibility for passengers to check items without cost, the response of airlines has been to expand the overhead bin space. That’s welcome, but does nothing to address the boarding hassles and the need to schlep your suitcase with you in the airport and on the plane. In the days before luggage fees, I’d often check my carry-on for the return trip. Of course, I could pay the fee and still check the bag, but my “pain of paying” brain regions light up at the thought of doing that.
On the ten hour flights to and from Amsterdam, the accountants also exacted their price. Other airlines, even in economy, offer wine, a supply of snacks, and do what they can to make the flight bearable. With the exception that a meal and snack were served, United’s international service seemed indistinguishable from domestic flights.
Social Media Amplifies
This illustration comes from Brian Solis’s book, The End of Business as Usual:
I don’t know what airline it represents, but it looks like it could apply to any of the majors carriers. When this is what people are saying about you, you have a problem. And, if you fail to respond in any manner (as has been United’s practice), you just make it worse.
Send in the CDO
On the plus side, the flights on my last trip were mostly on time and the flight attendants were pleasant. But the overall experience got me to thinking: United (and many other companies) need someone with C-level authority who is specifically responsible for improving the customer experience. Let’s call this person a CDO – Chief Delight Officer. This individual would head up a small staff that would focus exclusively on improving the customer experience.
At top management meetings, this hypothetical executive would be pounding on the table and passing around photos of a typical disembarkation mess on smaller planes.
Every day, the CDO would be pressing to find ways to add amenities to the customer experience without breaking the bank. Today, it seems that amenities are now considered primarily revenue opportunities or incentives for loyalty programs. And it’s not just United – a few weeks ago I couldn’t reserve an aisle seat on a mostly empty American flight because they were reserved for elite loyalty members. The major carriers seem to be on a relentless mission to analyze every element of the customer experience to see if it can be monetized or turned into an incentive.
If each airline had a CDO, we might see them return to competing on amenities and customer benefits. And flyers might actually start to preferentially choose airlines (as I do with JetBlue and Southwest).
I doubt if we’ll see a CDO anytime soon, but I do expect a major carrier to reverse course at some point and begin to emphasize customer experience as a means of differentiation. But, I must point out, I’m an optimist. And, I’m looking forward to being delighted.