The Demise of Airline Service

In her NYT OpEd, Ann Hood described the declining level of service experienced in-flight. This likely resonates with everyone who has flown consistently over the last ten years. It is also emblematic of a larger decline in service as documented by Business Week, WSJ (August 2006 special section) and others.  In Hood’s column there was an undercurrent of employee apathy as part of the explanation for declining service. In my experience, systematically poor service is rarely if ever the fault of employees.  Service models are designed to set employees up to either succeed or fail. Airlines today are clearly choosing the latter. In fact, it is good airline service that is surprising these days, precisely because airlines are relying on the heroic efforts of employees to compete. This is bad service by design.  To fix it, airlines need to go back to the drawing board and redesign their basic business model.

2 Responses to The Demise of Airline Service

  1. I am fresh from an almost 30 hour journey Toronto to Birmingham, UK on KLM (yes, I know, for 30 hours I could have gone somewhere a little more facsinating than Birmingham). What astounded me was how KLM took a situation which was not their fault (bad weather in Birmingham) and turned it into a negative KLM customer experience. It’s always the exceptions, the times when things are not working as planned that test the true service capabilities of a business. What KLM has forgotten in its service design are the simple things. Let’s start with human empathy. Don’t keep passengers–the old, people who have been travelling for days, people with families, just plain tired people–standing in a line for over 2 hours going nowhere and told nothing. How much would it have taken to find an airport lounge for 100 people and provide some water? I’m your customer, don’t be afraid. After you see me as a human being, try talking to me. When the solution is a 9 hour lay over, a flight to a city which was not the destination, followed by a bus service of several hours to the destination city, have the facts and tell me–we tried to get a larger plane but could not, this is what’s going to happen and we realize it’s not ideal, and this is how long it will take. I’m your customer, don’t be afraid. Then wrap up the empathy and the communication with execution. Do what you say you’re going to do. When I get to that ‘alternate’ destination, the one with the bus service, have a bus service. I’d like it if you talked to me, and I would really like it if you talked to each other. Even if you messed up, talk to me, find me a place to rest my weary bones, give me some water. I’m sleep deprived, dehydrated and just want to get where I’m going, even if it is Birmingham. I’m your customer, don’t be afraid. While there may be process design behind the KLM service design, there is little consideration for the ‘human design’. KLM staff lacked empathy, initiative and accountability. I would expect their reality is poor morale, mediocre management and a host of other organizational issues that would turn a run of the mill travel delay into a service disaster.

  2. Frances Frei says:

    Louise, you make several insightful points while describing a perfectly horrible service experience.  The presence (or absence!) of empathy and operating policies in unexpected circumstances sound like very good measures of how well a service organization is doing.  In my experience, these are outcomes of design decisions – you experienced bad service by design. KLM is not unusual for providing it, but it should still be ashamed.

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