What Separates Good Airlines From Bad

Challenging times have a way of stripping the veneer off an organization.

That’s certainly been true with the Covid-19 pandemic, and perhaps no more so than within the airline industry.

Airlines are admittedly in a difficult position, given the pandemic’s disruption of the global travel industry.  How an organization responds to such adversity, however, can reveal much about its true character.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, for example, has pledged not to furlough or layoff any of its employees at least through the end of the year.  His actions echo a basic tenet that his predecessor, Southwest co-founder Herb Kelleher, often touted:  employees come first, customers come second, and shareholders come third.

Kelleher’s thesis (confirmed by Southwest’s 47 straight years of profitability) was that if you take care of your employees, then they’ll take care of your customers, which in turn will take care of your shareholders.

Many airlines are girding for significant layoffs on October 1, when the industry’s pandemic government aid package comes to an end.  While Kelly has acknowledged that layoffs can’t be taken off the table, it’s apparent that Southwest is doing all it can to avoid that outcome and the resulting impact on its employees.  It’s further evidence that the “employees first” mantra is more than just corporate window dressing at Southwest. They walk the talk, even when circumstances in the marketplace make it challenging to do so.

If we shift gears from the employee experience to the customer experience, you can see a similar dynamic at play.  There again, airlines’ flight paths have diverged, starting in the spring with carriers’ varying responses to consumer demands for no-penalty cancellations.  Some airlines’ resistance at providing refunds triggered a surge of complaints to the Department of Transportation.  (After all, who wants a travel voucher in the middle of a global pandemic?)

After a few months, though, once the cancellation wave had passed, carriers started focusing on how to get people back on planes, even though Covid-19 was still circulating.  That effort centered largely on making passengers feel safe onboard, despite being squeezed into close quarters with others, traveling for hours on end in a sealed metal tube.

In an effort to make flyers feel slightly more socially distanced from their fellow passengers, four long-haul airlines implemented (and to this day maintain) “middle seat blocking” policies:  Alaska, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest.  (Southwest still uses open seating, but has limited passenger counts so middle seats can remain unoccupied.)

These four airlines have chosen to restrict aircraft capacity, despite the huge economic toll that the pandemic has taken on them.  That’s in stark contrast to United and American, which are not blocking middle seats nor restricting capacity in any way (as celebrity Chrissy Teigen pointed out quite publicly after traveling on the latter carrier).

Instead of blocking middle seats, United and American allow travelers to change flights (without a fee) once 70% or more of the passengers booked on an aircraft check in.  (Scrambling to find and then switch to an alternative flight at the last minute – yeah, that’s the epitome of convenience for a traveler!)

Airlines that have abandoned (or never initiated) middle seat blocking claim that it’s really an exercise in theatrics, because even with empty middle seats, it’s not possible for passengers to maintain six feet of social distance from one another.  In a call with reporters, United’s Chief Communications Officer, Josh Earnest, said that “Blocking middle seats is a PR strategy, not a safety strategy.”

That single statement reflects the fundamental misunderstanding that many airlines have about customer experience.  Is middle seat blocking a rational strategy for ensuring social distance on an airplane?  Not completely, but that’s beside the point.  Indeed, it’s actually the wrong question to be asking.

The right query is:  Does middle seat blocking make travelers feel safer, due to the lower passenger density?  And the answer to that question is a resounding “yes,” which is why middle seat blocking makes sense for airlines that are focused on long-term customer loyalty and financial performance.

The key point is that in any business (not just airlines), customers don’t evaluate their experiences along purely rational lines.  As a matter of fact, the emotional component of the experience – how it makes people feel – exerts a demonstrably stronger influence on customer perceptions.  As famed behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman once put it, “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.”

These days, most every long-haul U.S. airline is highlighting their focus on passenger health and aircraft hygiene.  However, only Alaska, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest really seem to appreciate what that means operationally – recognizing that it’s an exercise in both the mechanics of the customer experience, as well as the emotions that surround it.

There’s something else that Alaska, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest also have in common (perhaps not surprisingly, given their attention to customer experience).  For the last four years, they have topped J.D. Power’s rankings for North American Airline Customer Satisfaction.

Notably, that’s not just a public relations achievement – it’s a financial one, as well.  Those same airlines lead the pack in Watermark Consulting’s Airline Customer Experience ROI Study, which vividly illustrates how air carriers that excel in customer experience tend to outperform those that do not.

The bottom line is, you can’t market your way to a great customer experience (or a great employee experience, for that matter).  This is where so many companies, airlines among them, go wrong – promising the world, but delivering something decidedly different.

Alaska, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest deserve credit for putting their money where their mouth is.  By blocking middle seats for an extended period – and accepting the financial consequences – these airlines are sending a clear, unmistakable signal:  Customer experience isn’t about what you say, it’s about what you do.


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