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An Open Letter to Seemingly Delusional Airline Executives

Warning:

This post contains strong coarse language (also known as swearing). It also contains descriptions of irresponsible behaviour that may be offensive to some.
So if any of you feel you do not want to subject your nervous system to such a strain, now is your chance to … uh, well you have been warned.

 

I hate to have to say this but someone needs to.

I have always loved traveling the globe, and I still do. The excitement of exploring new countries, trying new food, meeting new people with different ways of looking at the world never loses its lustre.

However something has changed –  I have developed a fear of travel.

I now have a deep, disquieting, dread of going the airport. The mere thought of booking a flight causes my stomach to knot and my palms to sweat.

Not because I think the plane will crash spectacularly into the side of the mountain and I will have to resort to cannibalizing my fellow passengers for survival.

Nope! Not at all, I do possess a rudimentary understanding of statistics.

After 30 years of travel I have come to realize, there is a GIANT problem:

Airline Travel Fricken Sucks! And It Sucks Big Time!

I have known it for years now.

And  have said nothing until  now.

Not because I’m afraid of being called snarky. No, the real reason for being quiet, is I felt that the “pain in the ass factor” of air travel was just a necessary inconvenience –  so I sucked it up and held my tongue.

But Then I Noticed Something Horrifying…

Over the last several years the whole experience of air travel has been going downhill fast!

In fact it is descending faster than shit through the proverbial goose. A goose who is simultaneously being fleeced.

It is  obvious there is a race to the bottom amongst the airlines.

The race is on to provide less service, by employing fewer people and increasing automation.

Airlines lure customers with a nefarious veil of cheap fares then wallop them with bullshit fees when they are least expecting it.

I believe many airlines are operating this way while hoping not to piss off their customers too much. The sentiment expressed by Louis the XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Bapiste Colbert sums it up nicely

“the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.”

The strategies now being employed by the airlines are resulting in a somewhat cheaper but vastly nastier, travel experience for the customer.

You know what the worst part of the whole scenario is this?

Airline CEOs would appear to think everything is just fine, some even boast about their commitment to customer service.

The thing is they appear to have no bloody clue.

Reading an airline CEO’s message is like using google maps to get around a new town– there is very little – if any resemblance to the reality experienced on the ground.

Every time I go to the airport to catch a flight, these questions run through my mind:

Is this going to be the next flight from hell?

and

What kind of horrors will I be subjected to this time?

The horrors of airline travel include but are not limited to:

  • A dehumanizing and invasive security process
  • Surly customer service – if any service at all
  • Long, slow lines that only epitomize inefficiency
  • Delays and cancelled flights
  • Rushing for connecting flights
  • Unevenly enforced rules, or not enforced at all (think carry-on luggage)
  • Hidden charges and fees
  • Tarmac delays – the modern day equivalent of a concentration camp
  • Being bumped from an over booked flight
  • Obnoxious fellow passengers (can you really blame them?)
  • Being used as pawns in labour relation skirmishes as management squeezes employees in the race to the bottom
  • Complaint resolution mechanisms designed to thwart and frustrate the customer
  • Uncertainty and stress generated from the above points

Lets be honest!

The process of  going through security, customs and immigration for international flights is like being treated  as a side of beef.

Entering a country and then being subjected to the humiliation of the electronic equivalent of being finger printed and having your mugshot taken is not much fun either.

Sometimes I think our luggage gets better care (except on Air Canada that is).

In the business world where the gospel of customer service is constantly being preached from CEO pulpits, I find it very odd that the concept has appeared to completely bypassed the airline industry (from the perspective of an economy passenger that is).

The Single Most Important Question for Airline CEOs

Are you ready for the Question?

Here it is……

Do you realise your heads appear to be firmly planted up your asses?

I mean really?

On a recent flight with Thomas Cook Airways from London Gatwick to Hurghada, Egypt we experienced the following scenario.

Upon checking in at the airport we were asked to pay 50 pounds sterling for each suitcase which represented a significant percentage of the price of the ticket.

This outrageous baggage fee was a surprise to us. No doubt buried in the fine print on a webpage in some obscure corner of the internet these terms were stated – however; it was not  apparent when we agreed to fly on your airline.

As we travel with a regulation carry-on size suitcase each, weighing 12 and 14 kg respectively we decided to check just one. However to add insult to injury we were told that carryon was limited to only 6 kg per person.

I mean come on!  Expecting international passengers to pay for a bag of clothes and toiletries is like selling a car and charging extra for the steering wheel or tires. It is not an option – it is a necessity.

My camera and computers alone weigh 6 bloody kg! I asked the clerk (who was an employee of a third party service provider to Thomas Cook) if they had ever read the airline limits of liability. All I got was the ’deer in the headlights look’ I might as well have been talking to a kiosk.

Once  processed through the meat grinder known as Gatwick Airport, we found our midget sized seats on the plane and we were off.

Awesome, we were on our way!

The not so awesome part was that during the entire 5 hour flight, there were no complementary offerings – no cookies – no pretzels – not even a fucking glass of water!

We were subjected to a 5 hours of sales pitches. Duty free items, scratch and win tickets, credit card offers, Thomas Cook loyalty programs, food and beverages for sale – oh and we could even purchase water if we wished.

I paid 100 pounds fucking sterling in extra fees to get my bags on this flying sardine can and I have to buy a fucking  glass of water!

Thomas Cook does not employ flight crews – they have sales associates on their flights. Wonder if the “flight crew” get a bonus based on how much shit they flog during the flight?

By this time my frustration levels were at about the same level as the cruising altitude.

In need of distraction I reached for the inflight magazine. Which only served to add insult (and in retrospect some entertainment value) to the situation as I read the CEOs welcome message.

“Welcome on board. Whether you are heading somewhere warm for a relaxing break, or on your way home, I am so pleased you choose to fly with Thomas Cook Airways today.

At Thomas Cook we are experts in travel and have been taking our customers on holiday for over 176 years. Having our customers at the heart of absolutely everything we do is what makes us unique and why so many of our customers return to us again and again. We are proud that our latest Thomas Cook Airlines award, the “Worlds Leading Charter Airline”, at the World Travel Awards, recognises this mission.”

“Having our customers at the heart of absolutely everything we do is what makes us unique and why so many of our customers return to us again and again.”

Christoph Debus

Chief Airlines officer

Thomas Cook Group plc

What a load of Fricken Horse Shit! Definitely not my experience.

All I can say is the bar is not set very high Mr. Debus, and no your airline is not all that unique from my perspective.

It would also appear that the World Travel Awards did not consult your customers when handing out this prestigious award you flail me with.

Mr. Debus my experience of your award winning airline can be described like this:

You invite someone into your home; you then lock them in your living room for 5 hours, not even bothering to offer them a glass of water. Then you subject your guests to a constant barrage of sales people selling scratch and win tickets, duty free junk, and of course food and beverages.  If your “guests” have the affrontery to want water they have to pay extra for it.  

Then you the host, makes a cameo appearance and promptly informs everybody what a wonderful host you are!

Barf!

If you think the above guests would voluntarily return if invited again– I think you are kidding yourself.

Would you put up with that kind of treatment? I kind of doubt it.

In my opinion this scenario has  nothing to do with “Having our customers at the heart of things”it has everything to do with being cheap, nasty, and pulling out all the stops to maximize profit. On top of that having the audacity to tell us how great it is?

Other examples of Airline CEO Bullshit

Unfortunately, Mr. Debus is not alone when it comes to dishing out overly rosy views of their operations – there are many examples of CEOs being braggadocios in the in flight magazines while their readers suffer.

Sometimes their message is in code, so allow me to translate for you.

For example Mr Enrique Cueto Plaza the CEO of Latam in the Fall 2018 Vamos Magazine writes about focusing on improving the travel experience of LATAM passengers.

“Over the year we have also made strides in the digital experience to simplify process and provide our customers with greater autonomy. We have now installed over 1900 self service kiosks in airports throughout our network enabling passengers to avoid queues with self-service check-in and the ability to print boarding passes and checked luggage labels”.

Translation: Less airline employees = better service. At least kiosks can’t disrespect the paying customer.

He further adds;

“And we continue to promote the use of digital advances to improve the passenger experience. It is our hope that more airports will adopt technologies such as facial recognition to streamline security and boarding processes.”

Really Mr Cueto Plaza? Selling your customers on the idea that biometrics to expedite an inefficient airport security process is a good thing!  In my opinion the idea is Orwellian at best, and borderline psychotic. Why don’t we just chip all the poor plebs and scan them as they enter the airport. Better yet why don’t we tattoo a bar code on the poor bastard’s foreheads – along with a LATAM logo? (It is a very cool logo by the way!)

This is not about customer service it is about what is best for the airlines bottom line. I think you are getting the two mixed up.

In the December 2018 Aerolineas Argentinas editorial:

“This year more than 200,000 Argentines decided to fly for the first time and they did it with us. For this reason we are expanding our Economy class to accommodate more customers.”

Translation: We are jamming more people onto our airplanes! Hope you enjoy being crammed into a seat with knees around your ears, while struggling to eat your complementary granola bar because your elbows are embedded into your ribs. Because this is your first flight, we are hoping you don’t know any better.

Our first experience with Aerolineas Argentinas involved having to spend 1 day of our 3 day stay in Santiago Chile reorganizing two connecting flights. Due to a wild cat strike that the Argentine pilots sprung 2 days before we were to fly to Mendoza. We spent hours on hold listening to their cheesy canned music. Never once did anyone acknowledge the inconvenience, not fucking once!

Not impressed Mr Mario Dell’Acqua.

It appears to me that either the CEOs have no clue what is really going (ie they have their heads up their asses)

or

They know exactly what is going on and  are delusional (or perhaps don’t give a shit),

or

It is also quite possible the CEO’s might not actually be writing or authorizing the bullshit articles published in the in-flight magazines.

If someone intentionally tells falsehoods, and repeats these falsehoods at infinitum -it may lead some to believe these falsehoods. However it does not mean they become reality for everyone – in particular your paying passengers.

The Brutal Truth about Providing Humane Customer Service

You need to listen to your customers – not just to your employees or industry insiders such as the World Travel Awards, who in my opinion, appear to be blowing smoke up your ass.

I am not here to drink your Koolaid – I am here to tell you I think you’re full of shit.

Start acting like you are in the customer service industry – not the materials handling game.

Here is a hint on how to achieve this:

Have you ever heard about the “The Golden Rule” (not the one where those with the Gold make the rules). No, the other Golden rule:

The principle of treating others as one’s self would wish to be treated. 

You know the maxim that is found in many religions and cultures.

The ethic of reciprocity.

Many employees and CEOs appear to have no clue about the Golden Rule, as evidenced by the startling lack of empathy to the people who are actually paying the bills.

I believe airline CEOs need to ditch the Guchi suits, and forgo travel on their private jets once in a while. They need to actually subject themselves to the same process of being an economy passenger on one of their flights. Come on be a real leader, go under cover rather than hiding out in the corporate suite.

I think a real problem with the airline industry is the entrenchment of the “Class Mentality” – treating people differently depending on how much money they spend, what rewards programs they buy into, or who they know.

Stop with the entitlement bullshit and really experience what it is like to fly economy class on one of your fricken planes.  Maybe you will develop some empathy. There is always hope.

Alternately if you decide you are in the materials handling game – Fantastic! – define your niche and own it.

Just quit bullshitting your customers about how important customer service is to your business if it is not part of your business model.

The Six Tests Every Airline Must Pass

I have been flying internationally for over 30 years and have an understanding of what a good airline experience is all about.

I believe there are six criteria that every airline needs to pass to ensure a good customer experience.

To provide good customer experience, you need to pass all six criteria. If you can’t, your airline will Suck, no matter how hard you try.

What are the six criteria?

  1. Practice empathy: Even if you are an executive with a borderline personality disorder and incapable of empathizing with people. Smarten up and hire people who can relate to people’s needs.  Get a grip on reality – the reality of those who pay the bills. In short practice the Golden Rule (see above).

  • Tell the bloody truth: Quit blowing smoke up peoples butts (including your employees, your customers, and yourselves). Tell the customers what the flight is going to cost up front rather than trying to hide fees and charges. If your aim is to be the cheapest nastiest airline – tell us, rather than waxing poetically about how important customer service is and coming across as clueless or worst yet, a hypocrite.

PS: don’t bury the fact that you will charge people 20 Euros if they don’t have a printed boarding pass – something stated deep down in the ultra-fine print. Not all travellers carry printers, or have smart phones – I’m talking to you Michael O’Leary of Ryan Air!

  • Provide clear effective communication: Tell people what is going on! Provide clear, concise, accurate and regular communication from start to finish of the travel process, especially when problems arise. This means empowering your staff with accurate information.

  • Take responsibility for your actions:  As a customer of the airlines it is obvious that if something is my fault I need to pull out my credit card and pay up. However; if the airline fucks up tough shit! This is not good enough. Provide fair compensation when your airline screws up, causing losses or inconvenience to your customers, especially when you overbook flights.

  • Provide the basic necessities for people:  necessities such as food, water, lavatories and proper ventilation, even if it is just soda crackers and a glass of fucking water.

  • Provide complaints processes that are simple, clear and consistent. Please refrain from the Insurance industry practice of delay, deflection, and discombobulation, in the hopes the problem will magically go away.

Are You Concerned Yet?

Chances are, your airline fails many of these tests.

And you know what that means, right?

Hasta la Vista Baby, people will find other means of getting from A to B. There is competition out there as you are well aware.

You can  continue to screw with the customer, but the employees you manage to retain will not be happy campers. Meaning more job action and more hissing from the goose, and I’m guessing that’s not the kind of environment you want to operate in (I could be wrong however).

The Good News…

Hey you’re the boss. You can change the direction of your industry, that’s why you get paid the REALLY BIG BUCKS.

The thing is some of your passengers are fricken pissed off!  Pretending they are not and hiding your head in dark recesses does not magically make the goose stop hissing.

If the leadership of the airline industry is not willing to change the ways things are done, then guess what?  

Governments will start regulating again (with the input of airline industry lobbyists of course). Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights Acts might actually improve the passenger’s experience, or maybe not if they are rendered toothless. As a minimum airlines may just have to follow their own rules, which I am sure are already in place.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that the airline industry is an extremely complex, capital intensive business with lots of moving parts.

Running a business like this cannot be an easy task, and politicians are expensive (unless governments already own the airlines).

I am also extremely grateful to be able to fly around the globe and experience what this awesome planet has to offer.

As an airline passenger, all I ask for is a little respect, and to be treated as a human being – not  like a side of beef or a can of tomatoes going through a grocery store checkout.

I am confident, as leaders in this industry, you will move things in the right direction.

Sincerely,

A very tired, Snarky Traveller,

 

CC:

Michael O’Leary – Ryan Air

Oscar Munoz  – United Airlines

Mario Dell’Acqua – Areolineas Argentinians

Calin Rovinescu – Air Canada

Julie Reifier-Jones -LIAT

Enrique Cueto Plaza – LATAM

Christoph Debus – Thomas Crook Airlines

About the author: The Snarky Traveler is Michael’s alter ego. Snarky is the traveller in all of us who says from time to time “This is complete and utter bullshit” He is culturally aware but definitely not politically correct. He calls things the way he sees it and is not afraid to use colourful language to get his points across.

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