Back Of House With Bill

A Series On All Things Hospitality

Airlines: Problems Magnified by COVID 19

Like so many other road warriors, recently I reluctantly called my everyday legacy carrier to cancel an overseas flight, in hopes to obtain a refund. The cancellation, like so many others in these times was caused entirely by the COVID-19 environment. The team member who handled me was, surprisingly and actually very good, educating me on their policy that I would be provided a credit for a future flight to be taken before the end of the year. Although I cautioned myself to not shoot the messenger in this case, I pressed and doubled down, inquiring why a simple refund was not an option. The team member politely informed me there was “nothing they could do” …and right there is the problem the airline industry is now going to have grapple with and solve.

These policies, determined and trickled down by the unimaginative bureaucratic leaders who run these airlines, never consider the passenger, or the lack of compassion their actions create. These leaders are the same individuals who keep our money as credits (which is often subject to price changes) and at the same time, go cap in hand to the government asking for money to bail them out. It is amazing to me that these business ‘icons’ have become completely immune to the concept of “saving money for a rainy day”, always find some definitive and convoluted explanation as to why that is and then continue to cling to the notion that government, in the end, will bail them out.

My initial comments here may seem brutal, but for the last thirty years, I have constantly averaged over 100,000 miles annually and have been a very frequent and loyal flyer.  During that time, I have seen customer service on airlines in this country erode to an embarrassing and totally shameful level. How these airlines treat and make people feel is completely inexcusable, so much so that we require government involvement to define a passenger’s bill of rights.  How pathetic is that.

Clearly there are examples of outstanding service, with the intent to do the right thing for passengers and many of the smaller carriers achieve this, but overwhelmingly the leaders of the major carriers don’t seem to get it. Faced now with a daunting COVID-19 environment, their past may actually dictate their future. How do airlines that have almost singlehandedly alienated a majority of their customer base, attract and regain the trust of the very base they now need to bail them out? Simply put, my initial recommendation to their leaders in the re-opening of this industry is … Wake Up!

Let’s remember for a moment, that these airlines need the passengers more than the passengers need the airlines. In order to truly wake up, airlines have a responsibility to:

  • Treat passengers like people. Forget your stockholders’ interests and ideas that lead to the enactment of unfriendly baggage, seat, meal, drink, cancellation and change fees. Forget the self-grandiose performance models for senior management, which are perceived as simply a plan designed to enrich themselves. Remember who truly pays the bills.
  • Reward and thank your teams. The team members above and below the wing, who are much more important than the suits in the corporate world. I would encourage leadership to think about them, dwell on those thoughts and creatively act with gratitude towards them.
  • Regain passenger loyalty. Presently, passengers have no sympathy for airlines and furthermore are no longer loyal to a carrier. I am confident that many who travel internationally will be looking more towards international carriers, not US airlines in the future.
  • Make changes. The economic Armageddon the airline industry is faced with will be different, longer in time and require more changes then the impacts we saw from 9/11. Radical changes, which focus on long-term objectives, need to be the priority in order to withstand further disruptions.
  • Perform. The perceptions of airline performance will change dramatically, both from an operational and behavioral perspective. How passengers are treated will become hyper-focused and every airline will need to change in order to address these perceptions. Perception is reality.

Eventually, passengers (myself included) will buy tickets, check bags, board planes and travel. The travel experience must be different. Currently my experience and expectations of service with my long-term carrier are so low that I now always check in at a machine or online, frankly because the machines and the online prompts are more polite! My own personal perception of that fact needs to be altered by my airline if they expect me to remain loyal.

In order to regain this loyalty and bluntly, my confidence, I feel strongly the industry must take the following steps to begin treating people and their products better.

  • Think and act differently. Each airline needs to encourage passengers to choose their product and their company through a prolonged, actionable and emphatically driven training process. The old approach needs to be blown up for a fresh start. Re-imagine the nickel and dime approach and stop the price gouging on flights to smaller markets. Airlines need to shift the thinking and execution of human interaction at all points in the travel ribbon. Treating passengers with compassion and empathy is the only remedy.
  • Train team members differently. An entirely different approach to training should be adopted with heavy focus not only on health, but all the behaviors which surround health and hygiene. We need to think about the perceptions of how team members act in the post COIVD environment. It’s one thing to wash your hands, but how we ensure passengers feel comfortable and safe is the ultimate test.
  • Clean. And clean again. As I look forward to international travel in the future, I am inclined to book Asian carriers for long haul flights not only because the service is way better, but more so these carriers seem to be more clean. Cleaner restrooms, cabins and what feels like better team member hygiene matters. US airlines need to redefine all cleaning and hygiene standards in every facet of travel.
  • Let passengers define their own cleanliness. Passengers already bring wipes and sanitizers onboard, but these actions will only increase exponentially. It is not unrealistic to suggest that airlines should provide these wipes and also establish vigorous cleaning protocols for every aspect of the travel ribbon (ticket counters, baggage claims, gate areas, restrooms, onboard galleys, tray tables, etc.) Perception is reality and providing wipes and transparency on these new guidelines won’t eliminate fears, but will temper passenger’s redundancy to travel. Put them in control of their own level of cleanliness.
  • Hire an expert. All airlines have a robust safety team, but they must include a medical or infectious disease professional to guide and recommend the best course of action. Social media will be an airlines worst enemy or best friend in this regard and with this expert’s guidance, additional negative perceptions can be avoided.
  • Eliminate redundancies. Corporate overhead needs to be slashed to the bone, with only those essential positions remaining. All non-essential, non- performing and non-effective positions should be eliminated. Airlines do not need more managers or senior leaders. I also feel strongly that senior leadership should take a reduction in salary for the foreseeable future and eliminate all bonus plans. Financial pain needs to be shared proportionately.
  • Spend wisely and provide the right tools. Much more investment should be made in team members, which in turn will be rewarded by more passengers. If the team members have the right equipment, ideal shifts, layovers, working environment and training, passengers will respond. Furthermore, forget about expanding routes, forget buying more planes, abandon that strategy and invest in the people.

This crisis and the ability to emerge from it, is going to be a hard and long slog for the airline industry and I hope they realize that and act on it. It seems to me that the best approach is to have a long term, perhaps five-year objective and work toward that goal. Losses will mount up in the short term, and even an over hundred billion dollar subsidy from the government is never going to be enough to sustain airlines over the long term. Airlines need a sound long-term operational plan that is different. Different from the past mistakes and approaches and different from a reliance on the government to continue to prop up and bail out this industry.

I am, at my root, an entrepreneur from an entirely entrepreneurial family, I understand business, albeit small business. We live in an environment that demands we be committed to be creative in order to survive and flourish, we don’t live in the ‘too big to fail” world.  We have to be mindful of the times we live in and have a long-term view of where we are headed. US airlines more than most travel providers need to adopt that thinking now before it’s too late.

Band-Aids, be it in terms of money or the same old approach to solutions will not work. What is needed is a renewed vision, new ways of thinking and appropriate application of government aid with a view to becoming self-sufficient through any crisis. The ultimate goal must be to change how we are treated, to fit better with the times of the moment. If no radical change is planned and trained for, I am fearful that we, the taxpayer will continue to foot the bill, always leaving us disappointed with a below-par service product and searching for any return on our investments.  

*********

Next week I look forward to examining the challenges and numerous solutions for destinations and how they being to attract travelers to return and spend!