I often write about my experiences on airlines because there are few categories of consumer experiences that inspire such visceral reactions among customers as getting on an airplane. I am also old enough to remember when business travel didn’t suck as bad as it does today; when you could get on an airplane, have a decent meal, get some work done, and not arrive frustrated and resentful at how screwed up American aviation has become.
Just yesterday I had the unique experience of the best and the worst of modern day air travel. I flew United down to San Diego for GSP and wrote about my canceled flight here. In chatting up the gate agent I heard stories about how disgracefully United regularly treats their customers and employees, from canceling flights with mechanical problems rather than dragging out a fresh plane (because today there are no standby aircraft) to deliberately overselling flights and disrupting travel plans by bumping people, including frequent travelers.
The United gate agent expressed empathy but at the same time a degree of indifference that comes from the feeling of being powerless to do anything about it. As this nice gate agent said to me, United’s management simply doesn’t care about the employees or customers and she can think of few jobs where year over year she makes less money. She actually said to me, and I will quote her precisely for emphasis, that “I would be very surprised if Glenn Tilton doesn’t regularly get death threats.”
As I was standing there simmering about my canceled 6am flight and being force fitted onto the later flight in a negative legroom middle seat, I saw this computer screen and thought about it for a minute. Customer satisfaction doesn’t begin with employees, it begins with company leadership that values customer satisfaction and this simply hasn’t existed at United in years. Tilton and his upper echelon cronies do everything possible to not interact with customers, certainly not when they are jetting around on United’s fleet of private jets rather than on commercial flights with you and I.
I flew back from San Diego, uneventfully, last night just to turn around on a redeye to NYC. This was my first experience on Virgin America and if first impressions are everything, well they had me at the check in kiosk.
Ironically, while watching CNBC while on my flight I watched an interview with Richard Branson, who went into some detail about how when they were setting up Virgin America they had not only the experience from his other airlines but also a clean sheet of paper to do everything “right”. It shows, but what also rings loud and clear is the focus on the customer.
It’s easy to fixate on the very stylish new planes with the extensive entertainment system in every seat-back, but what makes this airline experience is the people who work the gates and the planes. I am not just referring to their sunny dispositions either, but also on the attention to details like getting the plane pushed back right on time. Not lost on me either is that the planes are configured with a respectable amount of legroom on every seat as opposed to United extortion pricing for “economy plus,” which is just another way of saying pay us more or else.
It is true that redeye flights are less problematic than primetime, but I couldn’t help but think that if I flew United last night I would have been crammed into a 3 class 1990′s vintage 757 with surly flight attendants and my knees shoved up into my chin. My Virgin America ticket was aobut $320, the same far that United charges. If Virgin and JetBlue can deliver affordable and enjoyable long haul flights, why can’t United?
BTW, I had a chuckle when I noticed that the entertainment display is titled, known as Red, is “beta“.