What Airlines Can Do to Serve the 21st Century Customer

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THIS POST IS UPDATED BELOW. American Airlines’ highly responsive Twitter account sent me this message in response to one of my tweets the other day:

https://twitter.com/AmericanAir/status/250264756622094336

Sure, no problem. Thanks for asking.

First, some background:

My wife and I celebrated our Honeymoon by flying to Hawai’i. We flew American round trip, with connections. That wasn’t a problem. But I thought their Boeing 757s seemed a tad bedraggled, and smelled like they were still recovering from cigarette smoke that filled their cabins in the 1980s. Whatever, probably just a fluke.

Then I flew American again on a business trip to Chicago aboard an MD-95, or DC-9, or 717, or whatever the hell it’s called these days. And I was outright astonished at how the flight attendants on the flight weren’t just openly mean to people – They didn’t give a crap about it either.

Sure, here comes story #572,489 about how crappy flying is. Fine. But no one offers real solutions, and nothing bothers me more than offering problems without offering solutions.

So, AmericanAirlines, here’s my response to you:

Nope, you can’t help me. Because I’m not flying your airline anymore. But I’m a benevolent creature by nature, so here’s some advice.

You’ve been taking a beating of late. And it’s well-deserved, because right now, you have not caught up to the rest of the world. It’s time to build not the first, but the best 21st Century airline.

Flying sucks. It’s expensive, it’s long, and most of the time, it’s boring as hell. So your job should be to do the opposite of what you have been doing of late, and make making flying fun your first, last, and every priority. That means customer service.

So here’s what I’d do on day one as your new CEO:

1. Free Wifi for everyone. End of story. If Starbucks can do it, so can you.

2. Free personal entertainment for everyone. Like I said, flying is boring. But nothing takes the edge off of sitting in a chair for 1-6 hours like watching some TV. Here’s where you can take some noted from your competitors at JetBlue, who offer personal TV through DirecTV. If I’m going to sit in a 757 for 6 hours going from Dallas to Maui, as my wife and I did a few months ago, at least give me ESPN. And while you’re at it, give us some On Demand movies as well. Netflix can give it to my phone, for crying out loud.

I also want these channels: A zoom-able real-time map with speed, altitude, range to destination and flight time remaining, and a camera showing us the skies ahead (perhaps a GoPro or similar camera at the top of the tail or in the nose). Take the magical mystery out of the experience for those who want to experience it more.

By the way, the next step? Interactive touch-screen games played between passengers in the plane. It will happen. You should be the first to make it happen.

3. Make your food worth eating. Instead of rubber turkey on a plastic bun, hook up with a restaurant chain and figure this thing out. If they can find out how to get TGI Friday’s potato skins into a frozen dinner I can pick up at Publix and have it be halfway decent, I’m sure you can get this done.

Here’s my best suggestion: Get together with the good folks at Darden (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, Longhorn) or Brinker (Chili’s, Maggiano’s), and come up with a menu of food that is tasty, easy to store and cook, and, oh yeah, tasty. You can even cut costs by allowing them to market with you. This seems too easy.

And I don’t mind paying for the food, too. As long as we have a nice menu we can order from, and it comes out nice and hot in a few minutes. Not a problem. That way, people actually feel like they’re getting a decent product for the money they’re paying. Drinks should still be complimentary, sans booze. Don’t change that. But the food needs help, and it’s easy to help it.

4. Teach your flight attendants customer service. Seriously. It just seems like they hate doing what they do, but they do it because it pays well. If they don’t like their job, they should leave. Offer them the buyout.

Instead, hire young, optimistic, eager people out of college, pay them a decent wage, and use your flight attendant program as a springboard for their careers. Acknowledge that most of them will (and probably should) leave after four or five years for bigger and better things. But in the meantime, give them free travel wherever they want while they work for you, so they can see the world, and let them learn the ins and outs of customer service while flying for you. And when they leave, after a certain level of service, they get half-price wherever they want. Let American be the Disney of airlines when it comes to internal brand development.

And lastly, let them actually have a personality. They can be funny, they can even be a tad sarcastic, but they cannot be stuffy. And above all, they must be nice at all times. Trust me, it helps a lot. Just ask anyone who’s flown Southwest. Those people get it.

5. And while you’re at it, ditch the silly uniforms for your flight attendants. They’re not pilots, so don’t dress them like them. Polo shirts and khakis. It’s cheaper, it’s professional, and it looks like you’re not trying to fool us, yet they look like they still actually work here.

6. Show me your pilots. These people are faceless creatures who talk occasionally over the loop. You should make them an integral part of the brand. They are experienced professionals who quite literally hold hundreds of lives in their hands every day. So when the flight is pulling out of the gate, and while we’re seeing the video demo on our seat-back video screens, we should also see a little greeting from the pilot and co-pilot, telling us their names, where they’re from, how long they’ve been flying, what other flight experience they have (Are they a veteran?) and other stuff that proves to us that we’re in good hands. Put a face on these guys.

7. First check-in bag flies free. Period, end of discussion. If not, get someone at Boeing to design and install larger overhead bins, so we can carry on more.

8. More footroom, and slightly wider seats please. I’m talking six more inches. Don’t worry, it’ll be worth charging a tad more when everyone realizes they can put their seat back a tad more and feel more comfy. And why is it that an Airbus A340 has nice, comfortable, wide seats for transatlantic flights in coach, but 747s feel like sardine cans? I can’t figure this out. The Europeans are winning that one. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Comfort wins every time.

Now here’s a radical potential solution that may enable you to change the model entirely:

9. Eliminate First Class altogether. If you’re offering all of these perks to get people to enjoy flying, then why discriminate based on how much you paid for the ticket. Have your 737s, 757s, and 777s arranged in this new format. Song Airlines tried this long ago, and it was working until the geniuses at Delta committed good-idea-infanticide.

But your high rollers still want the treatment? Fine. The answer is the Embraer ERJ145XR. You know, the ones you had flying American Eagle regional routes. If you want to fly from Miami to JFK First Class, then you fit out your ERJs to be first-class express jets, with traditional first-class level service, and you charge those flyers first-class prices. But the heavies should be all-coach, and as I’ve elucidated, coach shouldn’t feel like coach anymore.

Here’s how you market this: On American, everyone flies first class. It writes itself.

You have the power to be the Apple of airlines. People will pay a little more for a good product. If that’s what you offer, and you stick your neck out the way Domino’s Pizza has (“Hey, we used to stink, so you know what, we own it. And now we’re changing, because we’re listening, and we want you to trust us”). There is no industry more ripe for this than the airlines, and you have the potential to do it.

Yes, it takes changing a lot of hearts and minds, and some decisions will be painful. But you’re fighting for survival. Big problems call for big solutions, and I just showed you what I, someone who despises flying, want in an airline. And I’m not alone.

So please, heed this advice, and do it whatever way you can. After all, you don’t want to go the way of Pan-Am and Eastern, do you?

UPDATE: Looks like American Airlines may have been paying attention. Watch:

http://youtu.be/VPfWa6BXa7Y

(Video from American Airlines via NYCAviation)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article previously appeared on my personal website.