In light of all the US airline service calamities of late, is the airline industry failing in its service delivery?
Imagine you’re told on check in the flight is overbooked. You wait, they grant you a seat – but the only seat left is the middle of the middle.
Your 150 gram tub of vegemite gets thrown out by security, deeming it a liquid. You get a pat down. Then a bomb security swab.
You check in to the lounge to find your status has lapsed. And you don’t meet the dress code anyway. Then your check in luggage is scrutinised at the desk and you’re charged to have it checked in.
These are just some of the indignities your clients face when travelling.
“There are on average 17 checkpoints or stops in an international flight. Each of these increases anxiety in the passenger,” Message Shapers Public Affairs principal Justin Wastnage said.
“So when you get frequent travellers, whose objective is a fast process, mixed in with infrequent ones, who travel on leisure, tensions rise.”
It is fair to say that flying is fraught with inconveniences, and is the one element of travel that is likely to ail your clients and create a domino effect of delays, missed connections and emotional calls from airports at the beginning or end of your client’s travels.
For you to deliver service end to end, these are the hacks that will preserve your client’s sanity and willingness to even enter the airport.
“Airlines have a disadvantage more naturally because you’re exposed to weather and other disruptions – the industry can be hit with disruptions out of their control,” IBM Global Travel & Transportation Industry General Manager Dee Waddell said.
“Load factors are high – everyone maximises their assets as it’s a competitive world out there.”
Lately, aviation has been in the spotlight after a series of mishaps received major publicity around the globe for their mistreatment of airline passengers.
We all witnessed Doctor David Dao being dragged off a plane after being beaten by security personnel. An all-out brawl erupted at one American airport following cancellations. A teenage girl was banned from boarding a flight for wearing exercise leggings.
And in a minor transgression, there was allegedly a banana served as a gluten free meal.
It seems unprofessional to passengers, but airlines can and will overbook flights on the rationale that statistically, there are always no-show’s.
Unlike the United dragging incident, however, the carrier will ask for volunteers to take a later flight prior to issuing boarding passes, at the check-in desk. That didn’t happen on the now-infamous United plane, and that was a fault laid at the ground staff’s feet.
Passengers are generally paid for their compensation. Legally under the contract of carriage, United and other airlines are in the clear.
Wastnage looks to the European system of managing overbookings, based on the Air Passenger Rights charter in the EU. While controversial at the time, the charter provides automatic compensation for delayed and cancelled flights.
“If you have presented yourself on time for the check-in with a valid flight reservation and travel documentation and you’re denied boarding due to overbooking or for operational reasons you are entitled to compensation of €250 for short haul flights, €600 for long haul,” Wastnage said.
“Airlines here have lobbied against it. But it has revolutionised customer rights and led to far fewer delayed and cancelled flights,” Wastnage said.
In the absence of such a charter for Australian passengers, this is where data comes in, and your value as a travel agent.
Filing notes on client’s requirements and frequent flyer details as well as having a good relationship with your airline rep for important clients will go a long way.
In an exclusive with IBM, they told us that the interest of airlines in improving the customer journey has peaked with a high level uptake of their data technology for the industry. That includes a certain United Airlines.
“Companies are looking at the whole customer service,” IBM Head of Travel Dee Waddell said.
Aircraft and airports are fraught environments, where clients and passengers often feel helpless in the face of queues, delays, overbooking, visa complications and hand luggage debacles.
Emotions are high and in the face of so many rules, often which don’t make sense, drama is sure to ensue.
“Many things are beyond their control. Passenger facilitation is largely a government mandated or controlled area, but is the main gripe for travellers,” Wastnage said.
“If you step back airlines have tried to standardise certain ways of doing it because of the cost of personalisation,” Waddell added.
“The thing that airlines all chase is loyalty. Loyalty is more than frequent flyer schemes. This is ensuring that the most lucrative passengers return,” Wastnage said.
So what’s the good news, then?
Very few passengers each year are involuntarily denied boarding. The ascent of smart phones and video captures brings these incidents to the public attention, and it sure brings airlines to heel.
Indeed, United Airlines did just that with their adoption of IBM technology, which provides airlines with real time data on passengers, pulling from social media and booking profiles.
“When people operate off real time data with mobile devices you can enhance safety and security, customer satisfaction through a customer journey.
“If there’s a gate change notifications can be sent. Staff can walk right to the passenger, and say ‘your flight has been rescheduled – is that acceptable?’ as well as ancillary sales, maybe dinner for those affected,” Waddell said.
For you and for client alike, Flight Aware is a website and an app that updates every 30 seconds with estimated departure and arrival times. This can be crucial when clients are delayed and unsure whether to rebook with another carrier.
We can only imagine that the carrier’s at the centre of such policy debacles will rapidly overhaul their systems. While Waddell did not want to comment directly on United’s service of late, he was confident in measures to rectify.
“What I have seen is airlines learn from the past,” Waddell concluded.