Reviving airlines’ customer care

US carriers are earning a bad name for customer service. Now it is American Airlines’ turn to have a brush with its customers. A pram forcibly removed by an employee struck a mother and almost hurt her baby. When a passenger intervened, the employee told him to “stay out of this” and then challenged him, “Hit me! Come on, bring it on.”

In a statement issued by the airline, American said: “This does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident.”

Admittedly there are rules and regulations to be complied with, but enforcement may be handled in different manners. So said American in its statement: “The actions of our team member do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care.”

The employee was suspended and the affected passenger upgraded to first class on another flight.

It is encouraging to see fellow passengers standing up to the mistreatment. And if there is a good side to all the nastiness, it is the message sent to the airlines of the importance of good customer care in the competition.

An earlier incident on United Airlines triggered a call on social media to boycott the airline. In the aftermath of the incident, United said its management and board “take recent events extremely seriously and are in the process of developing targeted compensation program design adjustments to ensure that employees’ incentive opportunities for 2017 are directly and meaningfully tied to progress in improving the customer experience.”

Things are getting better for Economy travel

Courtesy Getty Images

American Airlines is not going to let rival Delta Air Lines go it alone in bringing back free meals for their flights. (See Delta Air Lines ups the ante, reintroducing free meals in Economy, 19 Feb 2017) However, American will for a start reinstate the freebie only two domestic routes – New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco. Nevertheless it is an indication of how the competition is heating up, and how the game has come a full circle. It is only to be expected that United Airlines (and others) will follow suit.

In the end, it is not a matter of the meals but one of being ahead in the game, doing something different. Interestingly, across the pond in Europe, British Airways (BA) is doing away with free meals and has announced plans to add more seats in Economy, thus reducing the pitch. (See British Airways is becoming more “budget” than Ryanair, 7 Mar 2017) Here the critical question is whether BA is a leader or a follower in the European context, although it appears it is somewhat of a Johnny-Come-Lately and what Delta and American are doing may force it to re-think its strategy.

At no time than now is coach travel getting more attention from the airlines, which understandably have been paying lots more attention to the premium product because of the higher yield. (See Cathay’s loss is a sign of the times, 16 Mar 2017) And that’s good news for the majority of travellers.

Is Singapore Airlines liable for misconnections?

sia-logoamericanemirates-logoetihad-logoturkish-airliens-logoSingapore Airlines (SIA) is among five major carriers taken to task by the British Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) for not compensating their customers for flight delays that resulted in missed connections. Emirates Airlines is said to be the worst offender. The other three carriers are American Airlines, Etihad Airways and Turkish Airlines.

According to BCAA Director of Consumers and Markets, Richard Moriarty, the five carriers have “systematically” denied the passengers their rights. He said: “Airlines’ first responsibility should be looking after their passengers, not finding ways in which they can prevent passengers upholding their rights. So it’s disappointing to see a small number of airlines continuing to let a number of their passengers down by refusing to pay them the compensation they are entitled to.”

Under EU regulations, which apply to airlines even if they are not based in the EU, a delay of more than three hours becomes compensable, unless caused by “extraordinary circumstances”. An airline is off the hook if the delay is caused by factors outside their control, such as inclement weather, but not if it is due to poor performance resulting from, say, the lack of maintenance, procedural hiccups or staff negligence.

This is not the first time an airline has been charged with not giving their customers their dues. Protecting air passengers’ rights has been a long running battle between regulators and the airlines, and the matter is far from being satisfactorily concluded. Nor is it as widely pursued as in the EU, United States and Canada. Even then, monitoring is not an easy task, and as arduous is the arbitration to decide if an airline should be held accountable. Ever since the EU ruling came into force, many airlines have been fighting the cases in court, and this can mean unduly long delays of compensatory payments if ever they are ruled in favour of the passengers.

Singapore airlines is putting compensation claims “on hold” if they involve connecting flights. This is a contentious issue as the delivering carrier has no control over a passenger’s choice of onward journey if he or she makes separate bookings. The question hinges on what is considered a reasonable connecting time. If an airline arranges the entire journey including the connection, it is usually obliged to look after the passenger who misses the connection as a result of a flight delay. This may cover a stopover stay at a hotel, meals, rebooking on the next flight or an alternative flight, and other related expenses. Some airlines have leveraged on short-connecting times as a marketing strength.

Following the US Department of Transportation final ruling on protecting passengers’ rights, SIA published a customer service plan for tickets purchased in the US for flights to and from that country. The plan stipulates: “In the event that Singapore Airlines cancels, diverts or delays a flight, Singapore Airlines will, to the best of our ability, provide meals, accommodation, assistance in rebooking and transportation to the accommodation to mitigate inconveniences experienced by passengers resulting from such flight cancellations, delays and misconnections. Singapore Airlines will not be liable to carry out these mitigating efforts in cases where the flight cancellations, delays and misconnections arise due to factors beyond the airline’s control, for example, acts of God, acts of war, terrorism etc., but will do so on a best effort basis.”

While an airline like SIA is unlikely to put its reputation on the line (the airline has often been commended by its customers for going the extra mile), there is always the caveat that it can only do so much to the best of its ability and on a best effort basis. In response to BCAA, SIA pointed out “a lack of clarity in the law” which it hoped would be resolved in the ongoing discussion with the British authority.

Virgin America tops, according to Conde Nast

Courtesy Virgin America

Courtesy Virgin America

Virgin America is the best airlines in the US according to a readers survey by Conde Nast. It is a credible list.

The top five airlines are as follows:

1. Virgin America, for its service and roomy cabins that include such features as touch-screen menus ordering, seat-to-seat messaging, no shortage of power outlets, Netflix streaming and mood lighting.

2. JetBlue Airways, for its ten-inch seatback screens, entertainment streaming options, free internet, unlimited blue chips and snacks.

3. Hawaiian Airlines, for its lie-flat seating in the premium cabin, welcome mai tais and guava cookies, and reputation for punctuality.

4. Alaska Airways, for its friendly staff, comfortable seats, reliability and guarantee that checked luggage will arrive no later than 20 minutes after touchdown.

5. Southwest Airlines, for its fun staff, affordable fare, two free checked bags allowance and any change of ticket without penalty.

Worthy of note is the ranking in the top five positions of both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, which have since merged but continue to operate under their different names for the time being. Their merged identity is set to be a major aviation powerhouse in the US,

Also worthy of note is the absence of the big three US airlines: American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Size is not a plus in this case, it seems.

What conclusions can you draw in an airlines survey?

SIA courtesy SIA

WE continue to be fascinated by rankings of the world`s best airlines, although the results of most surveys – take away some bias here and there – are quite predictable and almost similar across the board. The winners by and large boast excellent cabin service, great food, comprehensive in-flight entertainment and innumerable choices, more generous legroom than what their competitors offer, and frills such as complimentary champagne and brand name overnight kit. It is all about creature comforts. And the impressions are understandably almost always skewed by the luxuries of the upper classes.

Traveller magazine Conde Nast has just posted its list of the world’s best airlines, surveyed among some 128,000 readers. Of course this is not the definitive list of excellence to the detail, in the same way that no other list can be as definitive without considering factors such as the type of respondents involved, the scope of the survey and the criteria adopted, but there are nevertheless interesting conclusions to be drawn from them. So often it is more interesting to look at the omissions.

Long haul can impress or disappoint

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is a perennial favorite of Conde Nast readers, ranking top for 27 of 28 years. It is hardly surprising, which to be saying it seems even redundant. The airline has long earned the reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, and is frequently celebrated in other surveys as well. It was ranked second after Qatar Airways in the last Skytrax survey. It is hard to find a match that depicts consistency in excellence. The real clincher seems to be in its long haul operations – such flights that are likely to elicit the flaks when passengers are apt to become more stressed and demanding. Here is where SIA is able to make the difference by a well-trained crew that anticipates a passenger’s needs, always mindful the passenger’s comfort first and foremost in the service.

All the airlines in Conde Nast’s top ten are long haul operators, with the exception of Porter Airlines which is more a city shuttle that flies between Toronto in Canada and US destinations such as Boston, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

While the long haul impresses, it can also take apart an airline’s reputation, which explains why some airlines are inundated with complaints about being handled like a can of sardines. Interestingly, the Conde Nast list of best American carriers is made up of short-haul operators to the exclusion of the big three of United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Virgin America is ranked first followed by JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf Carriers

Again, it is not surprising that Conde Nast’s top ten ranks are dominated by Asian and Gulf carriers, which together were placed in not only in the top three ranks but also seven of the top ten positions. The Gulf big three of Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways were second, third and fifth respectively. Qatar was tops in the earlier Skytrax survey, ahead of Emirates (5th) and Etihad (6th). Other Asian airlines in the Conde Nast list are Japan Airlines (6th), Korean Air (7th) and Cathay Pacific (10th). Both SIA and Cathay were also ranked among Skytrax’s top ten airlines.

Dominance by Asian and Gulf carriers means the stark exclusion of airlines of other regions. Only one European airline – Virgin Atlantic – was listed, and in fourth placing. One asks: Where are British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa although going further down the list you will find Swiss International Air Lines (17th) and Finnair (20th)?

That and the marked absence of US carriers demonstrate the superior service culture of Asian and Gulf carriers and their growing popularity that continue to put pressure on their rivals in the competition. The US big recently accused the Gulf big three of unfair competition supported by state subsidies. In truth, North American airlines are not inefficient, but they lack the soft pampering touches of their competitors. There is a host of pertinent questions. Can US carriers be as friendly or, to go one further, do better? And, ultimately, do they even see the need?

Luxury improves image

Etihad boasts the “residence” suite that comes with a bedroom, private bath with shower and lounge. That is for now the forerunner in the race for the ultimate luxury in the air, leaps ahead of SIA’s first class suites and all the other airlines’ flat bed allures. There are also the extras: Etihad provides a concierge service that will make a dinner reservation for you when you land, and some airlines offer door-to-airport limousine services. The slant towards premium classes is to be expected, for that is what makes news even as the perks are limited to a smaller but more lucrative market of the travelling population. If there is one airline that seems to be doing much more for coach than many others, it is Air New Zealand, which offers “Skycouch” in economy – seats that can be converted into a lie-flat double bed – but then again, this is limited to only three seats in the cabin, reminiscent of the days when EVA designates a small number of seats as the ill-defined premium economy before the subclass takes on an identity of its own today.

Comparison is the crux

In any survey, the crux is the comparison, particularly when they are all said to be providing good cabin service and excellent food amongst the creature comforts. The Conde Nast survey again surfaces the rivalry between SIA and Cathay Pacific in the top ten, favoring the former. Interestingly, Japan Airlines (6th) is ranked ahead of All Nippon Airways (11th), and Korean Air (7th) ahead of Asiana Airlines. That indicates a reversal of order that has been the reading of many past surveys, and may well portend how the competition may be trending.

In the case of Gulf carriers, the ranking rivalry among Emirates, Qatar and Etihad is very much a close call going by several international surveys. At the same time, we cannot ignore the inclusion of Turkish Airlines in Conde Nast’s top 20. Turkish was fourth in the Skytrax survey.

In the close rivalry between Qantas (15th) and Virgin Australia (19th), the former continues to enjoy an advantage over the latter.

What else matters? All the hype about going green as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the impact of climate change? That Korean Air prepares its food from humanely raised and organically grown produce. That El Al offers an iPad rental program. That Virgin Atlantic has a stand-up bar. That Qantas offers Select on Q-Eat that allows you to pre-order your meal. That Air New Zealand makes its safety presentation more entertaining than others. That British Airways allows you to log on to a movie as soon as you board and stay with it until the aircraft is docked at the gate on arrival. The list goes on. And one wonders.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Way to go: Delta, United and American ban big game trophies carriage

I applaud US carriers Delta, United and American for banning the carriage of big game trophies on their flights, as I did Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines for banning the carriage of shark fins in view of the inhumane harvesting.

Yet I find it strange that some people were pressing to know the “official” reason why. Where were they holed up when an American dentist killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Delta Air Lines announced in a brief statement: “Effective immediately, Delta will officially ban shipment of all lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo trophies worldwide as freight.”

It’s good enough for me, as for the thousands of people who could not understand why Cecil (and others) should suffer such a fate for the pleasure of some egomaniac who needed badly to impress some barmaid or prove to his friends he had something between his legs lest we forget.

United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart said: “We felt it made sense to do so.”

Business is not all about making big money alone. Walter Palmer from Minnesota who killed the tagged animal was said to have paid US$50,000 to hunt Cecil, a major tourist attraction in the Hwange National Park and a subject of research at the University of Oxford.

Money talks, but moral responsibility keeps businesses in check to do the right thing, earning the people’s respect and support.

US airlines cap capacity: Economics or collusion?

A marketing proposition discussed at a recent IATA (International Air Transport Association) conference in Miami has opened a can of worms. It seems that airlines are recognizing that it is in their joint interest to cap capacity so as to maintain airfares if not keep them high. It is a lesson learnt from the global financial meltdown that led to a reduction of capacity and cancellation of unprofitable routes, a lesson that many of the airlines are stretching into recovery, and antitrust observers have expressed concern that this may become permanent.

In more justifiable business parlance perhaps, airline executives are calling it “capacity discipline”. That, however, implemented jointly across the industry suggests possible collusion to limit competitive pricing which the Justice Department is investigating.

The suspicion is not helped by US airlines turning in record profits as the economy recovers, unmitigated by the fact that while jet fuel prices are falling, airfares are not moving in the same direction. In the past two years, US carriers together close to US$20 billion, and higher profits are expected this year as fuel prices remain at their low levels, having already dipped by some 35 per cent compared with last year’s prices. On the other hand, airfares are at a record decade high.delta

American<a Justice Department spokesperson Emily Pierce confirmed the probe to look into “possible unlawful coordination by some airlines.” The four major airlines in the US – American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines – also confirmed they have been contacted to provide information and would comply. You bet these airlines were not picked randomly. If there were any collusion, they would be the ones in the strongest position to jointly impact the market. Together, they fly about 80 per cent of the nation’s domestic passengers.southwest logo

united logoExcluding Southwest, the US Big 3 are making the authorities reflect on the wisdom of approving the mergers of their erstwhile entities, creating mega carriers that as a consequence results in reduced competition as the merged airlines rationalize their operations to reduce routes and capacity. US politicians are not falling short in criticism of the new reality. US senator Richard Blumenthal warned of widespread “anti-competitive, anti-consumer conduct.” The issue is that airlines are not matching the increased demand for seats in an improved economy, and that can only lead to increased prices. Mr Blumenthal said: “Consumers are suffering rising fares and other added charges that seem to be the result of excessive market power concentrated in too few hands and potential misuse of that power.”

Indeed, as another senator, Charles E Schumer, pointed out, “It’s hard to understand, with jet fuel prices dropping by 40 per cent since last year, why ticket prices haven’t followed.” While some airlines outside the US have bowed to pressure to adjust airfares or reduce fuel surcharge, US airlines have stuck to their guns to not do so but instead return millions to their shareholders. It is a clear indication of where their priorities lie. Yet what could be wrong with that but for the alleged collusion to foster an oligopoly where the customer is deprived of choice, the very situation decried by the airlines themselves and the authorities alike?

Not surprisingly, the US situation in the light of falling fuel prices may suggest the tacit support that the major airlines give each other to not return the savings or part of it to their passengers, that no airline should be disadvantaged by a competitor cutting airfares. The mega conglomeration seems to have made that easier, so Mr Schumer said: “We know that when airlines merge, there’s less price competition. What we need now is a top-to-bottom review to ensure consumers aren’t being hurt by industry changes.”

The problem is magnified when you consider the rising trend of cross border mergers and acquisitions not excluding mega alliances that can wield as much power to jointly ensure that prices are kept high even as oil prices dip, and by their size are able to erect entry barriers to new competitors. Fortunately the environment outside the US is less homogeneous and the market too diverse. There are also socio-political differences, if not often conflicting. US carriers have derided as unfair competition the apparent non-conformity to US standards and other operating situations such as low wages that make it possible for foreign carriers to charge lower fares.

Courtesy Emirates Airlines

Courtesy Emirates Airlines

Interestingly, the Justice Department’s investigation of alleged collusion among US carriers comes at a time when the US airlines (with exceptions) are seeking to block the expansion of Gulf carriers into the US citing unfair competition as they believe those airlines – namely Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – are advantaged by state subsidies. Emirates CEO Tim Clark has rebutted the accusation by the US Big 3, calling their move “repugnant” while insisting that Emirates is “absolutely not subsidized, and our operations do not harm these legacy carriers, but instead benefit consumers, communities and America’s national economy.” He aptly touched on the goals of Open Skies, which include among other things “greater competition, increased flight frequency (and) consumer choice”, the very issues that the US Big 3 may be guilty of flouting domestically if allegations of collusion were true.

Sir Tim stated in his rebuttal that Emirates is “offering US consumers, communities and exporting companies direct flights to more than 50 cities not directly served by any American carrier… connecting America to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.” And he pointedly asked where the US carriers were. Yet could US carriers be faulted for not operating to destinations of poor demand? But should they then begrudge another airline filling avoid and envy its success in growing the traffic? So much about being the dog in the manger, while not denying it is an intricate issue.

Without competition to differentiate the carriers by product, service, fare, schedule convenience and network, reputation and frills, airlines have a tendency to move towards uniformity. Fuel surcharge is an example. All it took was one airline raising the surcharge in the days of spiralling fuel prices, and others followed quickly. Unfortunately, it is not quite the same when the oil price dips, so US carriers have taken what appears to be a collective decision not to pass on the savings to their customers.
Ever since the introduction of the fuel surcharge as a separate fee from the airfare, airlines learn very quickly to unbundle charges to be levied separately. What appears to be in the interest of the consumer who will pay for only what he or she needs, such as a checked baggage fee, has turned out to be a big money spinner for the carriers. Today, there are charges levied by some airlines for not only checked baggage but also seat requests and physical check-in at the airport. Passengers are often not any wiser about the real cost of their ticket, an issue that authorities in the European Union, US and Canada are taking airlines to task for misleading representation. Checked baggage fee and no meals on domestic flights are the norm in the US. However, US carriers may be disadvantaged internationally by foreign carriers that provide free checked baggage carriage and even meals for the short-haul. It is the competition that will make the airlines work for their money by being more productive and less wasteful, more innovative and more customer-oriented.

As the Justice Department investigates US carriers for alleged collusion, the corollary is whether real competition still thrives in the US. While shareholders’ pockets are loaded up, collusion can have many damaging effects, resulting in bloated, inefficient and costly operations. Or do they even matter considering the speckled history of US airlines seeking Chapter 11 protection and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy?

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.