Mike Batt, British Airways' head of brand marketing, once said, "There has always been a mystique and a romance about aviation, but in terms of the principles involved in satisfying your customer, there's no difference between selling airline seats and chocolate bars."
Unfortunately, Batt's frank remarks may accurately reflect the new era of air travel--one in which frequent flyers throw caution to the wind because too often they fall victim to lost luggage, flight overbooking (one of the great mysteries of air travel) or cancelled flights.
Last year's annual Airline Quality Rating, conducted by the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita state University, and the University of Omaha Aviation Institute, revealed that the volume of consumer complaints in 1999 represented a 130-percent increase, compared to 1998. I believe Tom Plaskett, chairman of Pan Am, succinctly summarized the continual state of air travel following his airline's demise in 1991, when he remarked that the state of our airline industry is a "national embarrassment."
One airline is trying to rid itself of the negative connotations associated with airports. During the last year, Northwest Airlines has implemented several airport technology innovations in an effort to take the reins in providing airport customer satisfaction.
Some of the initiatives include the following:
• The Portable Agent Workstation (PAW), which allows agents to roam Northwest counters and check in customers while they wait in long lines. Northwest recently deployed PAW agents to its hub airports during large events, such as the Super Bowl and the inauguration.
• Electronic Service Devices (kiosks) that operate like ATM machines. Passengers simply input their credit cards, the machine confirms the itinerary and then prints a boarding pass. Northwest owns 240 of these machines in 35 airports.
• An Internet check-in service, which became operational last December in 27 Northwest markets. Within a month of its launch, more than 100,000 passengers used this service. Customers can change flights, confirm seat assignments, complete upgrades and print boarding passes from their home computers. The customer answers FAA-approved security questions, and the system confirms the itinerary and prints a boarding pass.
"When we listen to our customers, they say they want more control over their travel experiences. They feel their travel plans are in the hands of a variety of people. The only way to change that is by offering them choices," says Mary Beth Schubert, Northwest spokesperson.
Schubert also says Northwest has deployed wireless devices that page passengers when flights are delayed or on time; there's a Customer Rebook Hotline--a portable bank of eight phones that rolls out to a gate if a flight is cancelled--which gives frustrated passengers immediate access to reservation agents; and Service Recovery Kits accompany lost luggage or are dispensed after cancelled flights. The kits include an apology letter, a voucher for dollars off for future travel, a comment card and a calling card.
Maybe Northwest's new systems don't guarantee your luggage will arrive at your destination or ensure your flight will land on time, but these basic CRM tools offer peace of mind because they put the customer in control of what is often a chaotic, very unsatisfying experience. And hopefully, they will motivate other airlines chafing under the yoke of "national embarrassment" to improve their customer service offerings, as well.