Last week’s passenger-dragging incident at United Airlines left many marketers (and other humans) aghast that any company could purposely assault its own customer. As it happens, airline technology vendor Sabre published a survey of airline executives just before the event. It confirms what you probably suspected: airline managers think differently from other business people.
The chief finding of the study, which is that the executives rated technology as by far their largest obstacle to improving customer experience. This is very unusual: as I wrote in a recent post, most surveys place organizational and measurement issues at the top of the list, with technology much less of an issue. By contrast, the airline executives in the survey– who were about 1/3 from operations, 1/3 from marketing, sales, and service, and 1/3 from other areas including IT and finance – placed human resources in the middle and organizational structure, consensus, and lack of vision at the bottom.
It would be a cheap shot to point out that the low weight given to “lack of vision” actually illustrates airline managers’ lack of vision. Then again, like everyone else who flies, I’ve been on the receiving end of many cheap shots from the airlines. So I’ll say it anyway.
But I’ll also argue that the answers reflect a more objective reality: airlines are immensely complicated machines whose managers are inevitably dominated by operational challenges. This is not an excuse for treating customers poorly but it does explain how easily airline leaders can focus on other concerns. Indeed, when the survey explicitly asked about priorities, 51% rated improving operations as the top priority, compared with just 39% for aligning operations, marketing and IT, and only 35% for building customer loyalty.
There’s a brutal utilitarian logic in this: after all, planes that don’t run on time inconvenience everyone. The study quotes Muhammad Ali Albakri, a former executive vice president at Saudi Arabian Airlines, as saying, “Two aspects generally take precedence when we recover irregular operations [such as bad weather]: namely crew schedules and legality and aircraft serviceability. Passengers’ conveniences and connecting passengers are also taken into consideration, depending on the situation.” In context , it’s clear that by “situation” he means whether the affected passengers are high-revenue customers.
But as you may remember from that college philosophy course, most people reject pure utilitarianism because it ignores the worth of humans as individuals. Even if you believe businesses have no ethical obligations beyond seeking maximum profit, it’s bad practice to be perceived as heartless beasts because customers won’t want to do business with you. So airlines do need to make customer dignity a priority, even at the occasional cost of operational efficiency. Otherwise, as the United incident so clearly illustrates, the brand (and stock price) will suffer.
If you’re a truly world-class cynic, you might argue that airlines are an oligopoly, so customers will fly them regardless of treatment. But it’s interesting to note that the Sabre paper makes several references to government regulations that penalize airlines for late arrivals and long tarmac waits. These factors clearly influence airline behavior. There’s even a (pitifully slim) chance that Congress will respond to United’s behavior. So the balance between operational efficiency and customer experience isn’t fixed. Airlines will react to political pressures, social media, and even passenger behaviors. The fierce loyalty of customers to airlines that have prioritized customer experience, such as Southwest and Virgin America, should be lesson to the others about what’s possible. That those airlines have had very strong leaders who focused on creating customer-centric cultures highlights the critical importance of “vision” in producing these results.
In short, the operational challenges of the airline industry are extreme but they’re not an excuse for treating customers poorly. Visionary leaders have shown airlines can do better. Non-visionary leaders will follow only when consumers demand better service and citizens demand governments protect them.