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Airline Customer Service: What Does An Airline Passenger Pay For?

Airline Customer Service: What Does An Airline Passenger Pay For?


This is one of those seemingly simple, basic and straightforward questions, which may sound silly at first until one actually takes the time to think about it.

One may say that the airline passenger has paid to get from a given point A, the departure point to a given point B, the desired destination point. We all understand that rightfully. So a straightforward deduction from that would be that the customer has paid for air transportation. Yet, that is just a superficial way of looking at it; no wonder why the question appears to be so obvious.

Taken from another angle, that of an airline marketer’s perspective, the passenger has paid for a given class of airfare or a bucket of fares. This includes mainly a seat and any other amenities the airline decides to offer in addition to that. And although this may sound very a knowledgeable and expert answer, that too offers every limited view of what the customer really paid for. According to a report earlier this year, a Chinese airline was exploring the possibility of having passengers stand in flight instead of seating. So sooner or later, a seat may not be included in the ticket price, all you would get maybe just a standing spot.

Now, let us consider the perspective of a customer through the following story. You may have a similar story to tell about your own experience or that of someone you know. And your story may be worse than the following one. In any case, you may arrive at the same conclusions. An acquaintance of mine recently got paid a visit by Mrs. Helen, an aunt of his, just a few weeks ago. Mrs. Helen flew from Boston to Montreal with a connecting flight through Toronto. That part of the journey was smooth with nearly nothing to complain about. The return flight however, was more complicated than the first part.

The first leg of her return flight was Montreal to Toronto. Her plane was schedule to take off around 12:30 pm, so Mrs. Helen got to the airport around 9:30 am to make sure she completed all formalities to catch her flight on time. Once at the airport, Mrs. Helen checked-in with her luggage and went through all required formalities as planned and waited for her boarding call. However, as the schedule time for departure was approaching, Mrs. Helen was told that she could not board the plane, because her flight was full. The next flight would be leaving five hours later around 5:00 pm. Had she been informed of that at the time she checked in, chances are Mrs. Helen would have had enough time to return to her nephew’s place and spend some additional time with him. Conversely, Mrs. Helen had to wait at the airport for extra hours, something she obviously did not anticipate and plan for.

Her flight finally left for Toronto around 5:00 pm as scheduled and her connecting flight also left for Boston on time around 8:00 pm. Mrs. Helen finally arrived in Boston around 9:30 pm. However, by the time she got home, it was already 1:00 am. It certainly was not her commuting time from the airport to her place, which took her more than three additional hours. It was rather the fact that she had waited at the carousel to get her luggage, which unfortunately were nowhere to be found. After engaging the airline’s customer service to try to locate her bags, it turned out that they were in fact loaded to the initial flight from Montreal she was denied to board.  So clearly, although the airline made sure that Mrs. Helen didn’t board her initial flight, the airline agent didn’t even bother making sure that her luggage was loaded to the new flight she was actually going to take.

That was the first option. A second option could have been that the airline would keep her luggage in Toronto and ensure that it is loaded to her new connecting flight for Boston, but no one took care of that either. A third option could have been that if the bags were loaded to the initial connecting flight from Toronto to Boston, an airline agent at Boston have been notified to keep them in custody, so they are readily available when Mrs. Helen got there. Unfortunately, none of the three options have been seized to please the customer.

The end of this story was not available at the time of this writing. Nonetheless, it would be of no surprise to know that at the end of her journey, having a seat on an airplane was not essentially what Mrs. Helen paid for. She was certainly frustrated over the blatant lack of efficiency she suffered from. Yet, a key question that comes to mind is the following. Did Mrs. Helen get the service she actually paid for and was expecting to receive? And that begs the following ultimate questions. Would Mrs. Helen book that airline, had she known in advance the terrible experience she has gone through? Would Mrs. Helen book that airline again in the future? And would she remember the first part of her journey and recommend that airline to other potential passengers? If we can genuinely answer “no” or “maybe” to any of those questions, then we can safely conclude that Mrs. Helen did not receive the service she expected and for which she had paid for. And this despite the fact that, she got to her destination safely and had probably found her luggage the next day or a few days later.

In summary, there are countless similar stories in which airline passengers cannot fully agree that they got their money’s worth, even though they were offered the seat and related amenities they had supposedly paid for in the first place. This has become a sort of commonplace experience that on the one hand no single airline could be blamed for. On the other hand, this sub-par customer service is perceived as normal. And this is precisely one of the things that contributes to devalue air travel to the extent of making it a mere commodity. It should be said, however, that in this particular instance, the airline had at least three specific opportunities to make a great impression on this customer.

The first opportunity was at the check-in or even before that. The check-in agent should have known that Mrs. Helen could not board the first flight, because of her discount ticket. The airline could have informed her that she will be booked on a different flight leaving about five hours later. That information could have left Mrs. Helen to decide, whether she would spend her long waiting time at the airport or with her relative she has paid a visit to.

The second opportunity was for the gate agent who advised Mrs. Helen about her flight change should have thought about her checked luggage. With that information, the gate agent should have taken a critical next step to advise her colleagues in Toronto or Boston about the checked bags. On one hand, the luggage from Montreal was going to be deplaned in Toronto. That was the second opportunity to make sure Mrs. Helen’s bags were identified and held in custody by the airline and loaded on her flight to Boston, once she effectively arrives in Toronto.

The Third opportunity was to let the tagged bags to be sent to Boston directly, have them held in custody there and inform Mrs. Helen about how to claim her luggage. Obviously, this step would have prevented Mrs. Helen from going and wasting her time at the carousel.

Why the airline seized none of these opportunities to delight the customer is not only shocking, but also indicative of how the airline industry needs to redefine its purpose around customer satisfaction.  And that is what the customer has ultimately paid for: a no hassle end-to-end air travel experience using the safest, fastest and most reliable means of transportation for leisure, to meet family and friend or to conduct business.

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Kofi Sonokpon

Kofi Sonokpon

Managing Editor of Airline Profits, the first aviation magazine devoted to improving airline effectiveness and profitability, Kofi Sonokpon has more than 20 years of international experience in aviation. Kofi holds an IATA sponsored Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Air Transport Management from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal. Kofi Sonokpon is also an author and speaker on the topics of leadership, effectiveness, and profitability.