Airlines: Love to Hate Them
Whether you are a road warrior, navigating the airport weekly, or a jet-setter, taking long weekends abroad, or even a member of a family, enjoying an annual vacation in Florida, I am sure you have noticed that air travel is an unpleasant experience – often so much so that it may generate a reluctance to ever travel again.
Below I am going to organize the 3 key areas that airlines fail to deliver to their customers and outline a few recommendations to improve the glaring service issues:
Customers Have NO Leverage
Unfortunately like many other products and services, there really aren’t very many unique options when it comes to the airlines. The cost economies, size, pricing, and service quality for all of the major airlines is almost indistinguishable. If you do not want to pay carry on baggage fees, the cost just gets buried somewhere else in the total cost of the ticket. Change fees for flights regardless of the total cost can range anywhere from $0 to $200, irrespective of the cost of the ticket – forget any flexibility. It can be extremely discouraging when dealing with the airlines because their service model is truly based on moving bodies throughout the sky and not creating a model that favors customers. If your service is really that bad you can change airlines with no guarantee that the service will be any better.
Loyalty Programs Alienate
For the 1% of frequent travelers, airline loyalty can be an extremely valuable, for those that do not fall into that category, you will be treated as a second or third class citizen regardless of your true loyalty. In order to make it into the 1% you need to travel multiple times a week, consistently, and with the same airline – even for road warriors this can be daunting. For those that travel frequently, you achieve basic benefits like security and boarding line priority. This feature sounds like something fantastic, however, most business travelers generally travel during the same times during the day, often diluting the overall value of the loyalty. Overall, the rewards programs are extremely generic and the rewards do not offer much value unless you manage to make it into the very select group that achieves lifetime status, point bonuses, and club access – otherwise, you are just in the same bucket as everyone else. Hopefully in the near future, airlines begin to reward frequent fliers and loyalists who migrate to a different airline and potentially shift the reward incentives to a miles based system to a price model.
Lack of Transparency
Unlike other modes of transportation, the airline industry is uniquely susceptible to cancellations and delays due to degraded weather and safety compliance. The safety record for the airlines is impeccable, particularly compared to other modes of transportation, however, despite this incredible safety record, the airlines delay and cancel flights daily. Every airline delay or cancellation is always best explained by a concern for passenger safety: maintenance, random inspections, acclimate weather, etc. Unfortunately, regardless of what they say, not all cancellations and delays are due to passenger concerns for safety. There is an implicit premium paid for air travel to ensure that customers get to their destination safely and in time, else, why would anyone travel via airlines when they could drive or take the train in the same amount of time. In order to avoid a mass hysteria, it is preferred for the airlines to keep any mechanical or human error issues to themselves; however, under circumstances where customers are impacted by service blunders, they should be deliberately transparent. It is often the case that airlines try to cover up or hide their operational failures. Additionally, many of the fees that are charged by the airlines are incremental and offer little to no transparency to the customer as to what exactly they are paying for.
Overall, the airline service model has a long way to go in order to compete with what I believe is superior service and pricing offered by other modes of transportation. Once you buy a ticket with an airline you are essentially at their mercy with little to no control over the outcome – from door to door. I hope that in the near future, given most of the consolidation occurring in the industry, that the airlines increase transparency, restructure their loyalty programs, and reduce customer vulnerability.