The Advanced Airline Art of Customer Disservice

What would happen if a bar was run the same was as an airline?  Read on to find out.
What would happen if a bar was run the same was as an airline? Read on to find out.

I am writing this article the same day I wrote about my problems with Fiji Airways in a separate article, and have been thinking about the underlying issue a great deal.  There is a huge and very important underlying issue, and coming across this NYT article helped me better understand exactly what the issue is.  In a nutshell, the airlines and their employees hate us.

We all know, either in vague terms, or in business case study specifics, the adage that an unhappy customer does ten times more harm to a company than a happy customer provides benefit, and we all know that retaining current customers is a much better business policy than making no effort at keeping them and focusing instead on endlessly chasing new customers.

We also all know, when we look at the best and most successful companies, in any industry, that one of the key elements of their success is in providing a positive experience to their customers, whether it be indirectly (in the form of the quality of the product they sell) or directly, in terms of their interactions with their customers.

But then we look at the airlines, and we see a massive disconnect, pretty much from the ‘worst’ airlines (no matter how you choose to define ‘worst’) and almost all the way through to the ‘best’ airlines (assuming one can ever juxtapose the word ‘best’ with the word ‘airline’ without hastily adding a qualifier).  None of these airlines actually show any tangible degree of sensitivity to customer relationship issues, which begs the question ‘Why Not?’.

No other industry so spectacularly ignores one of the cornerstone fundamentals of western free enterprise – that good customer service is an essential part of succeeding in business.  Yes, it is true. many airlines pay lipservice to the concept of caring for their customers – well, actually, there’s the first thing.  Airlines tend to think more in terms of passengers and fliers and travelers than customers, don’t they.  These impersonal terms show, right from the get-go, their lack of attachment to their customers.

No matter what they call they people who pay them money to fly on their planes, the hollowness of the airlines’ interest in providing a quality customer experience is apparent from the minute you walk into an airport (their desperate desire to distance themselves from all customer interaction by encouraging you to use machines to checkin) through to the end of the flight (a long wait for a possibly damaged or lost bag – in some cases a bag that you paid more to travel with you than you paid for your own ticket).

Any good salesman or showman knows that it is first and last impressions which count the most, and a company that sells a high value low-cost product such as air travel would surely want to maximize their chances to boost their relationship with their customers and enhance their customers’ loyalty and likelihood of repeat future business.  But airlines avoid it at all costs – indeed, talking of costs, these days they even charge you for the ‘privilege’ of speaking to one of their phone sales/reservation staff.  What other businesses charge you for the privilege of selling something to you?

The outrageousness of almost all airline fees, which bear no relationship to the cost of the services provided and massively exceed the amount which could be fairly accepted, show the airlines to be flipping us the bird every chance they get.

But, strangely, although these fees are always touted as increasing profitability (and even more ridiculously as variously being ‘fair’ or ‘what their passengers want’) nothing they do to ‘increase profitability’ ever seems to work for long.  As the airlines love to chant in chorus, they’ve lost more money than they’ve ever made during the entire not quite 100 years of commercial aviation.  Oh yes, and – of course – they somehow blame us for this!  If you’re an airline, everything is always someone else’s fault and nothing is ever your own fault.

That’s not to say the airlines don’t know how to lavish care and courtesies on passengers if they wish to, as this Wall St Journal article vividly describes.  It is just that they’ve brazenly chosen the ‘low road’ and seek to profit(eer) from us in a negative rather than positive manner.

Now there’s one more thing that most of us also instinctively realize – a realization which most successful companies share.  The ‘cost’ of providing outstanding customer service is minimal, and is massively outweighed by the benefits that flood back to the company.  Indeed, when we’re talking about business and first class fares costing $10,000 and more, ie ten or more times what coach class fares on the same plane on the same route cost, you’d think that whether such added services were trivial in cost or massive in cost, there would still be plenty of budget to almost smother such passengers with every possible added care and courtesy.

But even in the rarified levels of business and first class travel, passengers are getting fewer benefits and amenities, and costs are being cut (but not the premium fares attached to such tickets).

There’s a great deal one could write on this topic, and a great deal that many should write on this topic.  But for this article, today, I want to focus on just one simple thing – the way that both the airlines corporately, and their staff personally, view us as adversaries and enemies, rather than as the source of their income, their job security, and their viability.

This is the extraordinary thing – the airlines and their staff hate us.  Corporately, they blame us for all their mistakes and missteps and lack of profitability.  The front line staff seem to blame us for their consistently bad relationships with the airline management, or (ab)use us as an oblique tool to punish their employers.

This was driven home to me in Nadi, Fiji, a couple of days ago, when trying to persuade an airline employee to let me fly in the business class cabin that my ticket entitled me to.  Instead of her leaping to help me, and acknowledging the obvious desire of anyone to fly in business rather than coach class, and trying to solve the problem, it was absolutely clear to me that she was delighting in teasing and taunting me, and rather than seeking ways to help solve the problem, was erecting artificial barriers to extend the problem.

Why did she do this?  Why was she getting pleasure out of harming rather than helping me?  Why did she proudly tell me she’d rather see the plane leave with empty business class seats than with me and my nine year old daughter in the business class cabin that we’d paid to travel in?  For that matter, how stupid is she (and her airline employer) to not want to fill every business class seat, even if giving out free courtesy upgrades?  Did they not recognize it as a massive potential reward and incentive to their customers to be fully used?

Even a mass murderer would surely sympathize with anyone seeking to avoid ten hours in coach class, and particularly so someone who had actually paid for a business class ticket but who was now getting tripped up by airline procedures and being kept out of the business class cabin.  Here was an airline employee that could have entered half a dozen key strokes into her computer, and in 30 seconds have created a delighted loyal customers; but instead she chose to spend five minutes hassling her customer and making him unhappy and ensuring he’ll do all he can to avoid ever flying on her airline again.

How can anyone comprehend the illogic and inhumanity that such a person is cursed with?

Applying the Airline Model to Bars

Even a minimum wage barman recognizes the direct link between providing better service and getting a tangible reward in return.  But imagine if bar servers applied airline policies to the drinks they sell.

Each lump of ice would cost $1, stirring would be another dollar, if you wanted a slice of lemon in the drink that would be another $5, you’d pay extra for the glass the drink came in, and your one ounce pour would actually be only 0.25 ounces.

Oh, and you’d pay another $2 to be served promptly, and the price of the drink would vary semi-randomly from one round to the next.  Plus, each time you visit, you’d find the size of the glass had got smaller, and the mix that went into the drink was less than the time before.  But you’d also have an option to super-size the $5 drink (at a cost of $50 more) and the super-sized drink would come complete with one free ice-cube and half a slice of lemon.

Every drink also comes with a fee to cover the cost of refrigeration to keep the drinks cool, another fee to cover the cost of cleaning the bar each night after closing, another fee to cover the bar manager’s medical insurance costs, and another fee to cover the increase in the cost of alcohol.  The fees end up costing as much as the starting price of the drink.

You’d also have to pre-order all the drinks you wanted for the entire night prior to arriving at the bar, and would not be allowed to share any of them with friends or companions.  You’d then have to drink all the drinks in sequence with no variation.  If you wanted to change from, eg, bourbon to gin, or to drink your margarita before your mojito, you’d have to pay a change fee, and if you decided to leave early, the bar manager would insist you drink all the drinks you’d pre-ordered, or, failing that, pay a penalty fee in addition to the full price of the drinks for not having consumed all the liquor you’d earlier paid for.

The bar used to provide table service, but now it no longer does.  You go to the bar and order drinks through a vending machine, but there is an option to order from a bar tender, at an extra cost of $3 per drink.  If you do order from the bar tender, they simply push the button on the vending machine for you.  Sometimes you have to go to one vending machine for the alcohol, another vending machine for the ice, another vending machine for the soda, and another vending machine to mix it all together.  Vending machines occasionally and unpredictably run out of product, and you can never be sure how long it will take for them to be refilled.

One of the vending machines is new.  It has a fancy front on it, but it gives random electric shocks to customers.  The bar manager tells you not to worry, because the machine just has some teething problems, and he promises you that the machine is now fixed and there’s no chance of you too getting an electric shock.  While he is telling you this, paramedics rush into the bar and carry out yet another patron who has just received a shock, and the machine starts to emit smoke.  The manager insists you keep using the machine.

There would be a special vending machine for alcoholics, allowing them faster access to drinks.

The free nibbles they used to provide have now disappeared, and each time you visit, it seems the tables have got smaller and the chairs less comfortable, but there are a few comfy chairs in one corner, which you have to pay extra to sit in.  You also have to pay extra for regular seating depending on how close it is to the vending machines and toilets.

Oh yes, and due to concerns about interfering with the computers that power the vending machines and the mechanical dispensing mechanism, you’re not allowed to use your cell phones during the first and last twenty minutes you’re in the bar (but apparently it is safe to use them for the rest of your visit).

The good news is the bar has a punch card system where after buying a certain number of drinks, they give you a free drink.  Except that when you go to order your free drink, the system tells you it is out of stock, even though you see a steady stream of fellow drinkers ordering and receiving the same drink.  If the system does allow you to get your free drink, you discover that you have to pay almost as much as the drink would normally cost in strangely described fees, and it seems that almost every week, the number of drinks you have to buy before you get a free drink changes (as in increases, not decreases), and the free drink is more watery than the drinks you pay for.

How long would such a bar stay in business?  You’d think not very long, but this bar is buying up all the other bars in town, and before long, you find that all the bars are either owned by this bar, or else have copied the bar’s policies.

You move to a new city.


I hope you got a laugh out of the airline/bar analogy.  But the underlying point is serious.  Surely there’s no more screwed up business model than that being religiously practiced by the airlines.  Not only do we hate it, but the airlines lose money applying it to us.

The airlines – and their employees – clearly hate us, and seek to make the feeling mutual.

Isn’t there a better way to do business?  A fairer way?  A more honest way?  A way more in keeping with how the rest of the world’s businesses relate to their customers?

8 thoughts on “The Advanced Airline Art of Customer Disservice”

  1. I have encountered the same airline employee, she may have a clone. I have wondered exactly as you do at the delight they evoke in denying what to any sane person is a reasonable request.

    I remember the old advertising slogan, “Is this any way to run an airline?” The answer now is absolutely not.

    Kevin C

  2. Californiadreamin'

    If you got you ticket from AS and this particular flight coupon was booked in Economy, I don’t know that I would blame them for seating you as per the coupon for that flight.

    1. Hi

      My fare was business class, my allocated seat was in coach class. There was no ambiguity about the cabin I was entitled to be seated in, other than that space was not available at the time of booking, so – as I was told – I was seated in coach class and waitlisted in business.

      Come the day of the flight, fully one third of the business class cabin was empty. My waitlist should have cleared. It didn’t.

      I do blame them. You should too.

      1. Californiadreamin'

        Nope, I do not just on your say-so.

        Take it up with the airline/mileage plan you ticketed with, perhaps you would prefer they not permit mixed-class tickets be issues for mileage rewards.

        Many airlines are reimbursed by partner carriers in relation to the flight coupon settled with, thus, it is the issuing carrier/mileage program that must reissue a ticket to reflect the cabin booked once space clears.

        There are several booking classes within each cabin, and we must assume, as you were still confirmed in Economy, that yours did not clear.

        If your mileage plan specifically allows you to standby at a partner carrier for last-minute upgrade when using an Economy coupon that is part of a Business/First class redemption ticket, then I could blame the operating carrier, however, not on the basis of your rant alone.

        1. Incredible forest for the trees argument.

          Detailing the minutiae of the booking classes within a cabin, the reimbursement by partner carriers, and the assumption that the Rowell’s tickets “did not clear”, while completely ignoring the main point of the article, which was the Fiji airline employee letting business class seats go empty on a ten hour flight!

          Allowing David and his daughter to use the seats, or upgrading someone in coach for the goodwill, or heaven forfend, being entrepreneurial and selling them to someone in coach, all better choices than leaving them empty.

          I can imagine that an auction just before departure for the empty seats would generate tons of $$. Southwest now sells an A1 – A10 boarding pass just before departure for $50, and they sell like hotcakes.

          Kevin C

  3. Last year I retired from United Airlines after nearly 40 years as a flight attendant, some of that time in management. I won’t elaborate on the condition of airline service today, but will make a comment about a recent flight my wife and I took from Los Angeles to Nadi. Now I’ve sat in a few airline seats in my lifetime, but the economy seats on Fiji Airways new A330-200 are THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE seats I have ever had the misfortune to spend a couple dozen hours in. They simply DO NOT ALLOW one to get comfortable. I am 5’10”, 180 lbs (not large, nor small), but those seats were like torture. Simply put, avoid them. Go through Honolulu and take their 737 to Nadi, fly another airline (oops, not possible), go to another Island Nation. Anything, but don’t fly economy on their A330.

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