Friday, March 14, 2008

Airlines and Broken Promises

It’s 0330 on a Tuesday morning. I need to drive from my home in Anacortes to catch a flight out to Charlotte from Seattle. The airport, an hour and a half away, requires me to be there at least an hour before my departure time if not longer. I am a speed traveler and like to push it. Don’t leave me in a crowded terminal at 0600 with crying babies and crabby travelers waiting for my flight to leave. I like to get to the gate and go. My flight doesn’t leave until 0645, but I know I will likely have to endure horrid lines before I arrive to my tiny seat in coach.

Much of the wait time on a busy early morning at any airport is in the security line. I have conceded that in the post 9/11 world extra precautions are needed. I have also conceded that at little more than minimum wage, TSA personnel are very inefficient; but they try hard despite their incompetence and you win some, you lose some.

Private enterprise is, as a matter of survival, required to be more efficient than government agencies. So I have still not been able to figure out the self-service check in process most airlines have implemented.

Let’s be right honest with ourselves. We common travelers are a bundle of nerve-racked, incompetent cads. Our minds are filled with way too many things between the parking lot and seat 16B. Do I have any contraband that will get me arrested? How am I doing on time? Why doesn’t this fat guy in front of me move? Is the line at Starbucks long? How am I doing on time? All these factors, however unintelligent, contribute to the fact that we cannot check ourselves in and that the area at those kiosks are a nightmare.

I guess I have resented self-serve anything that used to be full service. I hate self-checkout lines at Wal-Mart because if there is a technical issue I have to get help from a blue vest staffer anyway. And those kiosks at Delta or United or American aren’t any different. Moreover, I figure that I have just dropped a grip of cash to take a six hour journey from Seattle to Charlotte, with little more than a bag of pretzels and minus three inches of leg room, so at least the airline could do is empathize with me and check me in. Nope.

An airline’s neglect to serve its passengers is really a broken promise from company to customer. It’s not about what works (in this case, what doesn’t work), it’s about delivering an experience that makes the passenger feel good. Airlines need to acknowledge that the average passenger has a lot on their minds and should do everything possible and economical to reassure them of their experience. Don’t expect much satisfaction from me when I am tired, hungry and have to check myself in.

Enter Alaska Airlines. These guys seem to get it. At Sea-Tac they recently implemented what it has named “The Airport of the Future.” In a streamlined check-in counter, Alaska has sworn off conventional self-service and still managed to help twice as many passengers in an hour than its larger competitors. While the check-in process is still largely self-serve, which I resent, there are more agents standing by to provide more assistance. It’s a fair compromise. On top of it, Alaska will save nearly $8 million with Airport of the Future. Check it out in this month’s issue of Fast Company magazine.

1 comment:

sean aaron said...

i truly believe that airline traveling has been the sole cause for my anxious breakdown this past year. I am feeling what Spike is given and the given is good!