Air travel fascinates me. And, for the most part, I still find it glamorous. I do enjoy sitting in the lounge, glass of wine in hand and cheese platter at my side, watching all of the comings and goings of these giant winged buses. And I pay for the privilege – it’s eye-wateringly expensive to travel up the front of the plane. But I do it because I expect a very high level of customer service. My customer experience should be second to none.

The fact that I must pay for the experience though… that gets my gears grinding.

If having to pay extra, just to get the level of service you expect to get as standard in the first place is somehow ‘okay’, something has gone terribly wrong somewhere.

Why pay more?

By continuing to pay more, we – as customers – seemingly normalise the corporate behaviour. “People are buying our product, so everything must be fine” is the chatter that happens with many systems thinking interventions.

And then you get to the flip-side of the argument. What happens when you don’t pay extra…

United Airlines demonstrated succinctly to the world the other week what could very well happen to you, as a customer, if you’re not throwing extra dollars their way. You can read about it here (The Guardian), or here (BBC News), or even a different angle here (Sydney Morning Herald).

In short, a passenger was violently assaulted and forcibly removed from an aircraft by staff who were following the rules as laid out by management.

This would never have happened to a business class traveller, or a traveller with a squillion frequent flyer status credits. In fact, United has specifically stated that the way they choose who comes off any plane in the event they need to bump a passenger is ordered by ‘class’. Those who pay the cheapest for a fare are flagged first, and so on.

Here, we have a target-driven policy, justified by hitting a number which happens to be the almighty dollar.

More interesting was the reason as to why, in this particular event, passengers were being pulled from the aircraft in the first place; United said they needed to get their own staff to a particular destination. Yes, you read that correctly: they bumped paying customers from a fully booked flight, so that they could move around their own staff.

One would assume that those staff would have been able to service another (or several) further flights, thereby enabling more customers to be serviced in total, and the income generated by the servicing of those further customers would be ‘large’. This would have then likely lead to the conclusion that a few bumped passengers up front would lead to many more passengers being taken care of later on.

But surely… given the potential sums of money involved here that the incentive offered to the passengers on this first dreaded flight could have been substantially higher? Surely a non-targeted approach, offering anyone who would be willing to give up their seat for compensation of some sort, and increasing that amount until someone raised their hand, would have been better?

Where the problem lies…

Obviously the policy needs to change. United Airlines have done that, now requiring changes of this nature to occur 60 minutes before the flight – so that they can have the difficult discussions with their bumped passengers in the terminal.

Yeah, they have changed the fight club venue (Washington Post). There is nothing stopping the incident from happening again… only that it won’t happen in the aisle of an aircraft.

The policy in itself is broken – it should be scrapped. If staff movements are something that needs to happen on a continuing basis, why not book seats for staff, or not completely sell-out particular routes? The service is obviously popular, after all, people do keep buying tickets to the point that they are able to sell every single seat. By reserving 4 seats down the back of the aircraft for staff movements, they would not only fix this initial problem, but might also then find a way to put a second flight on, and sell even more seats.

The problem appears to be the compartmentalisation (siloing) of each profit centre or business unit in the organisation.

It’s a common problem, and most traditional organisations have it – United is no exception. In an airline’s case, their target is to make each seat profitable, which will lead to each flight they operate being profitable, and so on. What this leads to is a set of behaviours that are derived from trying to hit the number. Payment for extras such as luggage, or sandwiches, or 20cm of extra legroom, or access to entertainment; these are all symptoms. As is the removal of passengers that have paid bottom dollar for that space in the seat for a few hours.

What to do?

The airline industry is crying out for a disruptive operator. An operator that is able to respond more directly to the customer experience requirements. And it will happen, mark my words! Off the back of events such as these, either one of the major carriers will begin a full organisational transformation, putting the customer focus where it belongs, or a more agile but smaller player will do it from scratch.

Really though, United and its compatriots are potentially living on borrowed time. Unless they are willing to go back to basics and understand – and own – their purpose for their customers, they are doomed.

Image from John Rawlings / Conde Nast via Getty Images

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