Airlines Are Passing the Customer Pain Buck


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Seth Godin uses the airlines as an example on his blog today in an entry titled Bait and Switch ( I would not take issue with any of what he stresses, but I think he has missed an important underlying issue.

Seth (in part) talks about being prepared to take the “anger, resentment and brand disintegration” associated with surprise fees and other bait and switch short term tactics. Later he discusses separating the pain associated with being a customer from the pleasure.
But who gets which? Somewhere at headquarters, someone is in pain trying to figure out how to squeeze a profit past high fuel costs and fare wars. The bright idea about add-on fees for baggage, food and aisle/exit seats puts some revenue in to the transaction with little and sometimes no incremental expense. So, the product manager feels better.

In reality the pain has not gone away. It has simply been transferred to airport staff and customers. Anyone who has tried to check in with a human being at any airport in the last few years knows that this critical opportunity to start an experience well is woefully understaffed with people who are undertrained and poorly supported. Add to their already unreasonable load the need to apply new and inconsistent fee programs and the potential for travel rage goes through the roof.

Competition makes us want to cheat. We want to pass our pain on to someone else, even if we do not think about it that way. If the operating committee for American Airlines or the product managers for Delta or the pricing analysts for Air Canada had to spend 3 days a month at a ticket counter checking in customers, fly coach on their own airlines and stand in the same lines their customers do to check in, priorities would change in short order.

Barry Goldberg
Entelechy Partners
I. Barry Goldberg is managing director of Entelechy Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas. His practice focuses on senior executives, change leaders and bet-the-business program teams. Goldberg holds a graduate certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University.


  1. Barry,

    I think Seth comment about being prepared for “anger, resentment and brand disintegration” is good advice. Who isn’t complaining about airlines these days. We don’t cut them any slack any more. Why? The tactics airlines are using provokes a competitive relationship. You are doing this to me, therefore I will seek my due in other ways. Very unhealthy and hard to recover from.

    Some of our frustration and anger might well be taken out at the check in counter. However, I doubt spending time working the counters would change the mindset of upper management. Cost-cutting actions usually are done with little regard for the customer experience. Cost-cutters see this as being tough and doing what needs to be done. It is a badge of merit.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Addicted Customers: How to Get Them Hooked on Your Company.

  2. Hello John,

    You very accurately describe the nature of the relationship on the front lines- as well as the cost cutting badge of honor. At the same time, I am not willing to throw in the towel on every company. Some have the fortitude to make changes if they can adopt a criteria for measuring success besides cutting cost in the current quarter. A tall order, no question.

    Having worked extensively with CRM projects and as an executive coach, I have found that it is possible to make cultural changes… even if slowly. One way to do so is by influencing the way that projects are planned and prioritized. The default in most corporate environs is to line up cosxt cutting projects by ROI and in order of who screams loudest and queue them that way. I have found that if, on the altar of cost saveings, I can get a client organization to reorder projects based on the likelyihood that they can actually execute, some movement is possible. Now there is permission to ask them to look at what the project will REALLY take to bring in. Not just the money, but the cultural changes and the need for active sponsorship.

    That conversation can lead to a deeper understanding of the larger system, which can change the way projects are considered. No doubt this is rough sledding- especially in organizations that are squeezed as airlines are- and especially with publicly traded organizations that get quater by quarter scrutiny. We are gringing sacred cows for hambuger here. But I have found that giving the top line execs a full and complete picture of what happens on the front lines often helps them to to understand the importance of customer experience as the “design spec” for changes to be implemented. it is easy to ignore what you do not see. And in cases where the organization cannot or will not see, then there is little anyone can do. Trying bolt CRM systems onto an organiztion that is blind to everything but expense cutting and efficieny is dangerous anyway.

  3. I am new to this but i like this blog a lot. The customer stratification is the most important one.So they should be given the first priority.The most of the company are not doing in the right manner.They should take care of them in the customer service.

    How to Retain Your Super Star Managers


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