How low flying airlines can reach a new service altitude

In recent times I have talked about Successful Customer Outcomes (SCOs), those things that we should seek out on behalf of our customers to ensure we deliver and exceed their expectations. If we align our organizations to SCOs (rather than industrial age silos) we become slicker, more agile, and indeed more profitable. In this article I’ll explore how operators in one industry can, via SCOs, rethink their business to survive and prosper in the hard times ahead.

I’ve been flying regularly for 20 years or more, and in the last twelve months I’ve clocked up over 150,000 miles; my lifetime mileage must be reaching interplanetary levels. I’ve travelled (and often grappled) with eleven different airlines this year, so I feel pretty well qualified to provide my take on what the airline industry should be doing to make the customer experience significantly better.

I’m going to concentrate here on what’s known as ‘Next Practice’: ideas that go beyond simply emulating the best efforts of the competition. The more progressive companies are already testing some new offerings and proving through sustained customer loyalty that it is possible to prosper while traditional incumbents stumble and fail. I hope to show that there is a lot more that could be being done.

EasyJet and the Sick Bags

This may not sound like a promising place to start, but bear with me. EasyJet, a European budget airline, continues to grow at the expense of many of its rivals. These include the large international monoliths who have until recently operated with some impunity with regard to passenger comfort and fares. In an environment of rising fuel costs, terrorist threat, increasing competition and inflexible organization structures, bottom line cost performance has become critical. This is even more pertinent for the budget carriers, where seemingly inexpensive items represent a large proportion of the ticket price. Many airlines have haphazardly reduced the offer
to reduce the cost; EasyJet have looked to innovate.

Taking an idea from Southwest Airlines, who advertise job vacancies on their sick bags, easyJet have gone that step further into Next Practice and removed the cost of the sick bags by getting someone else to pay for them. Kodak provide the bags, which if unused (yuck) can be employed as film envelopes for those vacation pictures. Even in this digital age many folk are wedded to their 35mm cameras. For the digitally liberated, Kodak also provide fast turnaround development services for photo media – you guessed it, right there in the arrivals lounge. Easyjet of course can focus clearly on this type of opportunity because their Successful Customer Outcome, as articulated by their creator, Stelios, is “Bums on Seats”.

So what SCO-inspired survival tips can we propose that may help the troubled airline giants to survive, if it isn’t already too late?

Eight Next Practice Offerings

Here are eight examples of SCO-oriented service offerings that I would like to see adopted. These eight are taken from a list that is much longer, and I am sure you could add to my choices. You might also want to consider what an equivalent list could look like for your industry.

1. In-flight Entertainment
– Seat Back Video
Virgin have provided this service for years and it undoubtedly adds to the flying experience. Anyone who has sat behind a large individual (sometimes wearing a cowboy hat) or is challenged in the altitude department will know exactly what I mean. And yet with the current malaise affecting some of the old airlines what are they considering doing to reduce cost? They are going to remove their primitive over-hanging screens to save on weight! Wow, that’s really going to help win more business and give them a viable future (not).

– On Demand Edutainment
Now things are moving. Being able to select from a range of films, news and all that TV can offer creates a more customisable experience that meets everyone’s needs. Once more Virgin lead the pack here and continue to push this out, even into Economy. The technology is not expensive so what stops the others following suit? It’s simple: focusing on the wrong things, having the wrong priorities, and clinging to the delusion that the current problems are just a blip.

– Connectivity: Pocket PCs, Smart Phones and Playstations
Many of us carry libraries of music and video. Our children have dozens of games. Creating the environment where the airline trip is actually ‘time out’ takes the experience to a whole new level. It isn’t about waiting to arrive – the journey becomes an end in itself. Hooking up our electronic gizmos and providing interactivity is another step in the right direction.

2. In-flight Internet
Time out is not what everybody wants though. While it can sometimes be a blessing for frequent fliers to get away from an always-on world, this should be a choice not an imposition. Most carriers take the imposition route and resist the straightforward step of in-flight internet. Lufthansa went there in 2003 and offer full access to mail and the web. That makes them the airline of choice for many who have little else to do as they traverse the skies of Europe.

There is no technical reason to resist this change. Some airlines insist it is a large cost overhead and that the related regulation is still vague. Hogwash. With Teutonic efficiency the Germans are leading the way and will continue to win business as others procrastinate.

3. In-flight Phone
A word on the phone – precisely something you can’t do very well at the moment. Even the FAA aren’t in the way of conversations at 35,000’ – they just carry the blame (quite wrongly) as airlines seek to protect their investments in hardwired back of the seat lumps of plastic that no one uses because of the expense.

4. Read & Leave
Reading is such a popular pastime on flights that a whole genre of fiction has developed – the airport novel. Easily read and soon forgotten these books tend not to find a permanent place on the bookshelf at home. Why not bring these books on board? Rather than buy them, customers could browse, read and leave behind whatever took their fancy. Condensed novels, chapter samplers and short stories could also come into their own as word length and flight time are aligned.

Book retailing is a competitive business, so there is a commercial angle that could be exploited. Intelligent use of sponsorship, discounts for subsequent purchases and other promotions should make this at least a cost-neutral offering. Perhaps the airlines are just waiting to exploit the technology that already exists to make e-books available. Should they get the benefit of the doubt?

5. Better Deals for Regular Customers
Frequent flyers – privileged or tolerated? I would suggest that airlines have very different views on this question. Generally frequent flyers are treated as non-paying passengers rather than as loyal customers. Why do accumulated miles only buy seats on the off-peak flights? I can understand the short term view of making individual flights as profitable as possible, but inconveniencing your best customers seems a strange way to run a successful business.
Surely to have prime-time flights busy with your most loyal customers is the practice
of a customer-centric business.

6. Miles for Favours
Access to popular flights is not the only benefit that should be available to the regular flyer. The experience can be easily enhanced by trading miles for in-flight benefits: drinks, food upgrades, gifts etc. With a bit of thought a frequent flyer could become a walking (seated?) advert for becoming a regular customer. “How do I get those benefits?” is not a bad question to plant in the minds of new customers.

7. Sponsored Beverages
What springs to mind when I mention in-flight coffee? The smell of fresh ground beans wafting along the aisle? I didn’t think so. I sometimes wonder whether the coffee on board is so bad because it discourages us from asking for it, keeping the aisles clear for the more profitable activities like the duty free trolley. Sponsored coffee provision from the likes of Costa Coffee or Starbucks would raise the quality and cut the cost.

8. Easy Upgrades
For some airlines this is a contradiction in terms. I travelled on a major national airline recently and discovered the phenomenon of the non-upgradeable ticket. Bounced between check-in and the “Customer Service Desk” (another contradiction in terms) I learned that I “had bought the wrong ticket” and “didn’t understand how these things worked”. Faced with the choice of paying again for a completely new ticket or accepting my fate, I chose the latter and spent the flight grumpily eyeing the empty Business Class seats from the crowded Economy cabin. Needless to say I won’t be warming the seats of that particular airline again.

Contrast this with an experience on another airline where my request to upgrade using frequent flyer miles was met with “that’s OK sir, I’ll upgrade you without taking the miles”. The difference is not better process or rules – it’s a question of culture.

And this highlights one of the key points that emerged as I sifted through my travel experiences for this article. Some of the most striking experiences I have had have come from individuals being able to do the right thing (even the unexpected thing) when it matters. A flight attendant who apologises for the fact that we are not flying on one of the brand new aircraft in the fleet (but which is still is better than most); the generous and immediate compensation for a mid-flight entertainment system failure. These responses come from liberated staff in customer-focused organizations.

Successful Customer Outcomes come from, and are delivered through, people – they should be given the opportunity to innovate to be great.

What would their list of innovations look like? Do you think they’ve been asked? I wonder.