Air travel complaints up 60% last year: How can rebranding fix a complete system failure?

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Ah. Air travel. One of my favorite topics (usually filed under "broken system report").

So... according to a recent study of air travel satisfaction, the US air travel infrastructure seems to be heading in the wrong direction. While technology, marketing and customer experience design are making giant forward leaps, the airline industry in the US seems to be taking giant steps backwards... or maybe not since a giant step backwards would actually mean comfortable seats, friendly staff, real onboard food/drink service, on-time arrivals, and no one getting bumped. Ever.

The reality, however, is pretty scary, as anyone who flies the friendly skies on a regular basis already knows. (Don't even get me started about the steel cart of death.)


On-time arrivals dropped for the fifth straight year, with more than one-quarter
of all flights late, according to the survey. The rates of passengers bumped
from overbooked flights and bags lost, stolen or damaged also jumped in

Stolen bags. Hmmm. Yeah. I hope that Homeland Security and the TSA have a backup plan in case the whole baggage handlers as a first line of defense thing doesn't work out.

Six airlines — Frontier, Northwest, SkyWest, Southwest, United and US
Airways — showed declines in every area in the survey, although Southwest still
had the best on-time arrival mark at 80.1 percent. The Dallas-based carrier also
had the lowest rate of consumer complaints, 0.26 per 100,000 passengers.

Still, the airline has not been immune from problems. It is fighting a
record $10.2 million fine from the Federal Aviation Administration for
continuing to fly dozens of Boeing 737s that hadn't been inspected for cracks in
their fuselages.

American, Delta and United airlines recently canceled flights to
perform unscheduled inspections of certain aircraft, and US Airways found
problems on some Boeing 757s after a wing part on one of its planes fell off
during a flight.

Wonderful. In retrospect, maybe having to pay $7 for a ham-like-meat sandwich and being forced to deal with passive aggressive flight attendants with questionable hygiene are the least of my worries.

The Airline Quality Rating study, compiled annually since 1991, is based on
Transportation Department statistics for airlines that carry at least 1 percent
of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by
the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and by Wichita
State University. The other airlines in the survey were AirTran, Alaska,
American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, Continental, Jet Blue and Mesa.

Among the study's conclusions:

- More than one-third of Atlantic Southeast Airlines flights were late, the worst on-time performance in 2007.

- The airlines also bumped passengers more often, at a rate of 4.5 per 10,000 passengers. JetBlue and AirTran were far ahead of their competitors in avoiding bumping passengers from flights, at 0.02 and 0.15 per 10,000 passengers, respectively.

- AirTran had the best baggage handling rate, at 4.06 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. American Eagle ranked last in baggage handling with 13.55 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.


Growing up in France in the 70's and 80's, I learned at a pretty early age to discern which European (and non-European) countries had the highest standards of living by experiencing their travel infrastructure - including airlines.

If we are to be a shining beacon to the world, we really can't afford to allow the quality of our air travel to sink this low. We already don't have much of a rail system, so it isn't like we can fall back on Plan B. There are no bullet trains that can get us from Houston to Chicago, from DC to Miami, or from Atlanta to San Francisco.

Some airlines are managing to thrive in this dreadful state of disrepair, as they should. Shame on the airlines that can't adjust to rising costs and aging aircraft. Yeah, sure, prices may need to go up a bit, but you can offset a 5-10% uplift in ticket prices by giving passengers something in return (and no, I don't mean sky miles). It's like everything else. When the conversation drifts to price, then you haven't done a good job of selling value.

If you want to change the conversation and talk about something other than price, then you'd better have something great to talk about. How about this:

1. First, make sure you have the most impressive safety record in the industry, and TALK ABOUT IT. (If US Air's wings lose parts during flight, you want to be on the total opposite end of that spectrum.)

2. Hire professional looking/acting staff. You're in the airline industry, for crying outloud. Bring a little bit of glamour back to your brand experience and make your company's name synonymous with that hint of luxury. I want to be greeted with smiles at the check-in, at the gate, and onboard the plane. I want to be treated like a valued guest, and not like another ass-in-seat hassle. I don't want to be berrated by a power-tripping ogre struggling to deal with another 2-3 lousy years left until retirement. Give me smiles and professional looking people. You know, with uniforms that a) fit properly and b) get pressed every once in a while. Give me enthusiasm and manners. If hotels and most companies in the US can do it, surely airlines can as well.

3. In-flight service: Look it up. Hint: Charging $7-$10 for a POS vending machine sandwich is just dumb and beyond gauche. #1: You're ripping off your own customers, and they will remember it. #2: Food of such insipid quality doesn't belong on your flights. (Not unless you stow wooden crates and live poultry in the same hold as your passengers.) Treat your passengers well.

4. Scratch overbooking from your MO.

5. Invest in some toiletry kits. That way, when the baggage handlers at one of your twenty+ airports steal a passenger's Vuitton suitcases, you'll at least give your angry passenger a) Fresh breath, and b) the notion that while the airport may not care about them, you sure as hell do.

6. Buy aircraft with comfortable seats. (Before buying the damn things, get your senior execs to fly from coast to coast in one of them.)

7. Drop routes that don't make sense. Better to be small and great than big and crappy.

8. Be insanely nice to your passengers when they exit the plane.

9. Toys or coloring books for kids. Yes, even in the era of Gameboys, iPods and PSPs, the ubiquitos free branded toy goes a long way.

10. I hate to sound like Papa Seth, but make te experience memorable (in a positive way). Just like The Standard Hotel makes a point to make every detail of the guest experience cool and story-worthy, an airline can (and should) as well. Redesign your uniforms. Redesign your aircraft interior. Redesign the entire experience of booking, checking-in, waiting at the gate, boarding the aircraft, flying, landing and exiting the terminal memorable. (It doesn't need to eat into your profits either. A little bit of forethought doesn't hurt.) In other words, get your heads out of the numbers for a bit and take a more holistic approach to managing your business/airline.

In other words, build some value.

Stop whining, stop complaining about the price of fuel and the pilots' unions and overcrowding at most of our country's airports, and do whatever you have to do to become the best damn airline in the US (and then the world).

If the issue is Wall Street, fire your board, appoint people to it who can put together a rejuvenation plan, and send them to speak to your investors with a kickass proposal they will rally behind. Make them understand that business-as-usual and damage-control won't cut it in the long-term, and that you have a real plan to get back on track. Not just financially, but from a true market leadership standpoint.

Easier said than done? Sure. Of course. But that's no reason not to try.

Just for sport, let's have a show of hands: How many airlines are doing this right now?

1? 2? 3, maybe? Yeah. That's what I thought.

For shame.

This is not a problem that can be fixed by cutting costs (the equivalent of ancient medicine's practice of bleeding sick patients). This is a problem that must be fixed through cultural change from within the organization: Airlines that stand for something and deliver on the expectations of their most critical passengers will stand out and do extremely well. Those who are merely content to stay afloat, those who fear Wall Stree and fickle investors, those who have no plan to rebuild their airlines as opposed to slowly bleeding them to death or relying on government bailouts will continue down this ill-fated path.

When I bite into a stale $7 POS sandwich on a crowded flight with dirty floors, mean flight attendants and no chance of making my next connection, all I see is lousy leadership, and it sucks.

This really needs to be fixed.

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