Mark my words, airlines and their clients are rarely in the same boat.
The aviation industry has always been peculiar, and it is, indeed, a very difficult one to regularly make a profit. It is said that the cumulative financial results of the world’s international airlines from the end of the Second World War is a nett loss. Currently this may be changing as the US carriers finally make money, and serious piles of the stuff, but if history is any guide to the future this will change.
Change happens for many reasons, but today’s attitudes of airlines and their staff really takes the cake. Forge the sycophantic “Thanks for your business, we know you have a choice” message one hears upon landing, they know that in general, there is no choice. Depending on where you live, there is a single dominant carrier with pricing of a level of predation that would make a bald-eagle blush.
Most city pairs can be flown by one of the three major carriers; the determinant factor is, however, the number of flights available. Yes, one can travel from Minneapolis to New York with Delta, American or United, but only Delta offers a non-stop service, and prices it accordingly. The others will offer various levels of discount depending on the day of the week, how individual flights are selling at any given moment and a variety of other factors that feed the pricing algorithms that they all operate.
This is, of course, fair enough, but not inclined to make the public believe that the airlines care about them one iota; and on non competitive routes (Winnipeg/Minneapolis), fares are simply disgraceful, and cynical in the extreme.
And then they get you; having found a reasonable fare, now there is the fight over baggage, flyer points, boarding sequence, refreshments and so on. The airlines spin doctors like to tell us that this is all a wonderful utopia designed solely for our “choice”, but the sad truth is rather different.
Airlines seem to be the only business whose heavily advertised product is deliberately made so dreadful that we will pay anything not to have to use it as described.
Unless one is one of a carriers’ most favoured clients, and here we are looking at only the top 20th percentile, one can be expected to face a cynical barrier of auto-responses and disinterest in response to any and every irregularity. Dealing with impossible call centres in distant lands solves no problems; hiding behind veils of inaccessibility allowing such gems as “The computer says no” to become the stock answer, and the pretence of the fusion of Alliances to help travellers mask a rapidly growing corporate contempt for their customers.
Airlines are behaving like governments; disinterested and too big to fail.
But why? I believe that they are simply too big. Senior executives, and even most middle managers, have never bought a plane ticket in their lives, and have absolutely no idea what the customer interface with an airline is all about. They have “Interline Desks” and travel free; other airline staff help them because they all know and participate in the same game.
I don’t begrudge them the pass benefits at all, but I do wonder how it is that an entire industry has evolved that is run by people with absolutely no practical knowledge of the customer/industry relationship. Senior folks in the grocery industry have often purchased milk themselves, or go to a Home Hardware store; they know what expectations of service are. Airline executives have simply no idea whatsoever.
They have no concept of the lunacy of the ticket restrictions when trying to piece together a complex vacation, or the difficulty in corralling three friends or family together to plan a trip. And when they do, suddenly they offer a “lock in the fare” option for (only) another $75! They simply don’t understand the vast range of motivations for purchasing their product.
And herein lies the glimmer of hope. Pride, as we know, goes before a fall; sadly, falls don’t always follow pride, but we can’t have everything.
Airline profits are slim on a percentage basis, and one that returns 3 - 4% is considered quite spectacular. This implies, of course, that 97% of their income is spent operating the business, and this leaves a dangerous group of passengers who are basically ignored. For many, travel is completely discretionary, and the choice of airlines is too. For those living at gateways, those with choice, market share of the local dominants is being slowly eroded by the newcomers. Witness the extraordinary vitriol being spouted by the normally diplomatic CEOs of Delta and United over the growth of the Middle Easter Three: Emirates, Qatar and Etihad.
They know that they are losing, and spitting blood over “subsidies” is a poor substitute for raising their service to a point that people will actually want to purchase their tickets.
And while we are on the subject of subsidies, US Government requirements for thousands of employees, contractors and others to travel on a US carrier, and pay vast fares for the privilege generate billions of dollars of revenue for the airlines in a hidden subsidy.
The contract for the US Mail is another major source of subsidy; original awarded to Pan Am to allow it to operate the first long-haul routes to South America and Africa, this tool has long been a well-used part of the government’s arsenal of support.
It is time that airlines realised that their passengers doubled as human beings, and would react positively to good service off the plane. Air Canada’s service on board is exemplary, but it does not mirror the off-line support offered by their baggage folks, airport staff, sales staff and most certainly the reservation desks. If carriers are to secure their now-found financial stability, ensuring clients’ loyalty by delivering an attractive service from beginning to end rather than by forcing loyalty through geography and nicely designed web tools would be a good move.