The Airlines and their Peculiar Approach to Customer Satisfaction

AA's almost unchanging market share hints at the lack of competitive pressures in the airline world

For almost a month now, United Airlines has been issuing regular announcements proclaiming the great success of its computer system changeover.  Most mainstream media have been parroting United’s announcements without additional comment.

Almost alone, Joe Brancatelli has been telling the ugly reality of this changeover – lost reservation and upgrade data, problems with frequent flier information and status, and United’s customer service being nearly impossible to contact, even for the most ultra-elite frequent fliers.

One is left wondering – how can United be so appallingly incompetent at mismanaging this transition?  Doesn’t it care, at all, about the impact this must surely have on its business, its reputation, and in particular, the risk of losing some of its most frequent fliers?

If I saw a flurry of senior management announcements and apologies, I’d decide that maybe, in their handicapped airline approach to things, perhaps they do sort of care a little.  But the only announcements I’ve seen have been saying ‘there are no problems’, and more recently, ‘there might have been a few small problems, but now they are all fixed’.

And so it seems impossible not to conclude that UA really doesn’t care how it treats its customers; and – which leads in to the article I’m introducing – seems no reason for concern about any consequences from such customer mistreatment.

Last week I reviewed a generally bright and bouncy book written by an AA flight attendant about her experiences.  While she is now making a great second career out of being a positive personable person that people are drawn to and like, there were several flashes of quite the opposite in her book, including a couple of passages where she reacts with complete uncaring indifference to unhappy passengers vowing never to fly AA again.  In one case she says that all the other airlines were just as bad as AA, a statement which undoubtedly true is still no excuse for any of the airlines being as bad as they are.

So these two recent exposures to what airlines and their employees consider ‘customer service’ got me to thinking.  And then to writing what became an almost 4,000 word piece, stretched out over two web pages.

Why is it that airlines are so unconcerned about customer service?  All other industries seem reasonably aware of the need to keep customers happy and satisfied; and some of the most successful businesses have succeeded due to their excellence and highest quality customer service.  Everywhere else, it seems that customer service is a prerequisite to success.

But, when we come to aviation, it could be said that the airlines’ approach to customer relations is a bit like a game of musical chairs – but with no-one removing any of the chairs (airlines).  Instead, we all simply run around like crazy until the music stops, then sit on whatever chair presents itself.  Sometimes it might be an AA chair, and sometimes a DL chair, and so on.  But all chairs always end up with someone sitting on them.

To discuss this counter-intuitive situation, and to explain how it is so, please go enjoy my article The Airlines’ Approach to Customer Satisfaction – What Goes Around, Comes Around.  You’ll have to read the article to appreciate the uniquely airline meaning to the phrase ‘What goes around, comes around’.

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