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Flying the Friendly Skies?

Airline Customer service is often an exercise in irony.

I can tell you as a frequent traveler that there truly is a wide range of service when it comes to the airline business.  Much like you might find a different dining experience in a drive through than at a white table cloth establishment, there is a similar gamut when it comes to air travel.

I have flown the discount airlines and first class on the most respected airlines – and everything in between.  I have slept in airports and found fantastic service on bargain carries.

And though it all, I’ve found that it matters less about the price of the ticket as it does the commitment to quality from the organization.

THE MISSION: It seems that many airlines have lost focus on the larger mission of their organization.  There is something very special about what airlines do – let’s face it, everyone in this business is a decedent of the Wright Brothers and takes on a sacred covenant to shuttle Guests to and fro safely and expeditiously.  In less fluffy terms, the larger mission is one of business, necessity, and fun.  On most large flights there are folks on dozens of different journeys.  There are business folks on the way to close the “big deal.”  There are families heading on vacation.  There are parents heading to see grandchildren for the first time.  And for these folks, those destinations are important and perhaps life changing.  Is it any wonder why folks lose their sanity when flights are delayed or canceled?

Every flight crew has an amazing responsibility ranging from safety to an on time arrival – and every passenger is depending on them to deliver.

THE GUEST PERSPECTIVE: Guests are on the plane to get from point A to point B and maybe have a little fun along the way.  They value a deep commitment to safety, but also organizations that don’t take themselves so seriously.  Now that is one thing for a restaurant chain, but quite another for businesses that fly thousands of feet in the air.  But all that said, there are a few that have forged a reputation for doing just that.  I will tell you that flying Southwest a decade ago was a refreshing experience – and one that kept them at the top of my travel list for a while.  Delta has a little more subdued spirit of fun, but every now and again I’ll run across a preflight speech that has a zinger or two.  But most importantly, travelers are looking for a consistent experience – just like in most businesses.

How do the gate agents manage the crowd?  Do they start boarding when it says so on my ticket?  Have they figured out how to let me use my iPad during take off?  Will they manage deplaning in an efficient manner?  Well, that last one is out of their hands as travelers figure out how to do complicated things such as stand up and walk.

THE PITFALLS: Many parts of the travel industry tend to appear as though they were set up for the convenience of the business rather than the traveler.  The airline industry tends to fall into that column frequently.  I have to grade on a curve here, though.  Because as we discussed earlier, safety has to matter.  Let’s face it, no problem is a small one when you are 30,000 feet in the air – and that is a huge responsibility.

But there are certain things that can seem irritating to travelers.  Bargain airlines that seem to charge for everything but using the lavatory top the list here.  Think about the process for some of these airlines – want to bring a carry on bag?  Pay up.  Want to choose your seat? Pay up.  Want to sit next to your wife? Pay up.  That can get irritating after a bit.  So can printing a ridiculous boarding time on tickets (I recently had one that boarded 1 hour prior to flight time).

Keep an eye out for silly policies and rules that do nothing but inconvenience Guests.  If they truly have a great reason, then explain it so folks understand.  Often communication can solve any consternation regarding policies and procedures, so don’t skimp in this area.  And when you can make a change, do so and communicate that broadly as well.  For example, one of most appreciated changes I have seen is the ability to use my tablet during take off and landing – I appreciate being able to read or watch a movie rather than just staring out the window.

HOW TO WIN: Customer service matters no matter what the industry.  When it comes to the airlines, there are two key areas that can help drive success.

First, gate agents and ticketing counters definitely need a boost.  There is no doubt that the online check in kiosks are great for those who are seasoned travelers, but I watch novice flyers struggle every time I head to the airport.  More agents to help those folks would be useful.  Second, make sure that those at the gate are master communicators.  When there are delays and cancellations, rarely are they set up for success.  Airline infrastructures must be set up to support gate agents when they are overwhelmed during a hiccup in flight scheduling.  They must also be trained to use more positive phrases and give complete information.

Often the anxiety travelers experience during flight interruptions is due to lack of information – substituting in a transparent and honest flow of information can help alleviate the angst many might be feeling.

Next, don’t lose sight of the fact that business travelers are tired and cranky.  Those flying for pleasure are excited to get to their vacation destinations.  Those traveling for somber occasions have a lot on their shoulders.  And always remember they are all people – with unique personalities and needs – who just want to be treated well and to arrive safely at their destination.  For my money, I give a huge shout out to Delta, my airline of choice.


This is week 6 in our 10 week series – in case you missed any of the past articles, you can click to them right here:

Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll need someplace to sleep.  Next week we will take a look at the world of hotels and how these homes-away-from-home can give the very best experiences to their Guests.

Until then, remember to treat every Guest like a cherished friend and have a powerful Customer service week.


Tony Johnson is a Customer Experience Expert, Keynote Speaker, and Author with a wide background including decades in retail and restaurants.  He regularly speaks and coaches organizations to IGNITE THEIR SERVICE PASSION using his common sense approach to Customer engagement.  Tony has spoken to government agencies and Fortune 500 companies to unlock their amazing capacity for excellence.

Check out Tony’s FREE Resources and Training Tools: Web: YouTube: Twitter:

Check out Tony’s book: RECIPE FOR SERVICE Now Available on

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