What airlines could learn from cruise lines

Most cruise lines operate efficiently out of necessity. If they don’t take care of business, ships sink and people die. They sail floating cities out into the ocean where there is very little help to fall back on. At sea, the Captain is simply “the master of the vessel” as they tell say on ships and whatever gets thrown his way gets handled.

Just to look, one would think that airlines must have an efficient operation too, also out of necessity. They fly hundreds of people from place to place and they too don’t have a lot to fall back on. They might be in a worse position because they can’t launch lifeboats to save their passengers should the aircraft have a problem like a cruise ship can. In the sky, we are told that the captain is in command of the aircraft. That is surely true to a point, but there are a lot of factors that are out of his control. Still, almost everyone has a story about their worst flight ever and most love to tell it.

“It is unlikely that airlines will ever rank at the average, and certainly not above the average, in customer satisfaction because of some of the intrinsic factors … that will never change,” David Grizzle, a longtime executive at Continental Airlines told USAToday.

Let’s compare how one cruise line handles things compared to how one airline does.

At least one cruise line has has come up with a brilliant plan to make for a smooth disembarkation process. While most guests on a ship will be wading through a sea of luggage to find theirs after the sailing, this new program lets guests leave luggage outside their stateroom on the last night of the cruise to be seen again when they arrive at their home airport. The program saves guests time looking for bags after the cruise and effort toting them around from place to place.

The process also streamlines going through customs , normally a time-consuming task, by disembarking all the guests who signed up for this service and their luggage at the same time. Once disembarked, they are put on a special bus that is then sealed until they arrive at a secure area at the airport. If the seal is unbroken, customs authorities board the bus, process the guests right there, verify the security level of the bus driver then send the passengers on to board their flights. Their luggage goes through a similar process, also on a sealed truck, then it is scanned, photographed and loaded on the appropriate flight.

There’s more to it than that but you get the idea: very convenient, very secure, very fast, and the price, $20 to use the service then $25 per bag, is a steal. We did this in Vancouver B.C. not long ago and experienced the process first-hand. It was a really good example of a company going out of their way to accommodate their customers.

Contrast that pleasant experience to our flight on a major airline flying from Vancouver to Atlanta then on home to Orlando.

Before it is too late, I should throw in that I am a huge fan of flying. Any kind of flying. My dad had a little Cessna airplane when I was a kid and we flew all over the place. I am also one of those people who have never had any luggage lost or damaged, ever. I have no gripes with airlines.

Starting off badly, we were held on the ground departing an hour late while the airline “had to add some oil to one of the engines” said the Captain, master of the airliner. No problem there, we do want to be safe flying and who knows what might have happened on the flight before us to slow things down. We don’t sweat the small stuff.

But what happened after that, the sequence of events that unfolded next, is what I believe to be a great example of how not to handle a customer.

The “we’re doing you a favor taking your money and flying you places” attitude is getting really old. Combine that attitude with a downsized workforce that can barely keep up with demand during peak times and it’s a bad scene that can have cascading bad results.

As soon as the flight in Vancouver took off and headed for Atlanta, one of the airline’s major hubs, those with connections were rightfully concerned about missing their flights. In the olden days, I would see flight attendants go from row to row answering questions about where guests would go for their connection.

Today an apathetic airline worker (she never rose to the level of “flight attendant”) came on the loudspeaker after she had just about enough of the pesky questions from edgy passengers. “The flight attendants don’t know where your connecting flight will be!” she said, adding “Check the magazine in the seat back in front of you for where the terminals and gates are and then you will get specific information when you get inside the terminal” in a totally dismissive way. She was done with us so she retired to the safety of the galley where mere passengers were not allowed to tread.

“Oh my, she sure told us didn’t she?” one passenger noted. “What a bitch” another one chimed.

I had some problems with that.

First thought: “Liar! You do too know connecting flight information” I thought but dared not say out loud.

Second thought: “So you want us to memorize the layout of the airport, find out which terminal and gate we need to be at then recall the layout we memorized and then what? Beam over to the correct terminal?”

I can get more information than that with my iPhone app FlightTracker which can look up any flight in about 9 seconds. I offered my services to surrounding passengers, all of whom had begun to take on a mob-like demeanor.

My thought was “So what ARE you doing here other than a bad job of selling over-priced food and drinks?”

By then we had started our approach to land at Atlanta. I planned on quickly getting that connection gate info as soon as we were on the ground and I had a signal for those who needed it.

It turned out that I had plenty of time.

First we land then taxi around for 15 minutes, looking for someplace to park the airplane as all the gates are full, kind of like we had landed at a suburban shopping mall on a busy Saturday. The Master of the Airliner announces, ” We just need to move some equipment out of the way and then we will get to the gate, should be pretty quick”

The passengers with connecting flights are getting more nervous as time slips away.

After a few more minutes we arrive at a gate but its a different gate than we had been told previously. No problem for me, it’s actually closer to where I needed to go. Apparently this was a big problem for a guy up in first-class who I could hear screaming at somebody from my seat in coach.

The next 30 minutes were spent trying to find someone to drive the jetway up to the plane to let us off. Apparently no one was available. Now to me, just thinking, shouldn’t it be part of the procedure that when they change a gate that they tell the guy driving the jetway? I would think that would be part of Ground Operations 101, right after “No smoking when driving the jet fuel truck”

So here now we have a whole lot of runners in the Atlanta airport, not totally sure where they were running to because they got the gate number from some writer guy on the plane with an iPhone but it was the best they could do.

I was one of those runners too with my wife not far behind shouting when I would occasionally look back “Go! Go!” like I should throw my body in front of the plane so everyone could get on in time and save the day.

Arriving at the gate I see the plane is still there but the waiting area is almost empty and there is a lady on “stand-by status” with 6 kids (dumb) working the gate staff for seats. In my crazed I-gotta-get-on-that-plane-and-nothing-is-standing-in-my-way state of mind though she was on “standing-in-the-way” status and needed to move.

“I have a ticket right here” I triumphantly announced and was waved past the mother and her pack of kids then on to the plane.

On board, moving down the isle towards our seats, we are now the hated, disgusting, nasty people who are holding up the show to all the seated passengers. You would have thought we burned a flag at a war veterans meeting the way they looked at us.

Almost ready to take off, all the overhead bins had been closed and were full. Now, stowing my backpack and our small suitcase was a problem too. The other passengers were scream-thinking “You wouldn’t have this problem if you boarded like a normal person you idiot!”

It was then that a flight crew member said sternly, “Sir you need to stow that bag and sit down!” like I was a bad little kid who had not picked up his toys for the umpteenth time.

Not to be intimidated I countered “Where? They’re all full!” in the same I-hate-your-guts derogatory tone.

“How about here!…or here!… or here!… or here!” she screamed walking up and down the plane, opening previously closed overhead compartments, revealing open spaces/pouring salt on the wound/flirting with disaster with the mood I was in. Then she stopped, turned around, crossed her arms and like a scene from the old west, dared me to draw first.

“No problem!” I countered back and might have mumbled something about her being a (bad b-word) not totally under my breath which drew more looks of disgust from other passengers, obviously not feeling my pain.

I felt much like I imagine others have felt before being escorted off the plane by unmarked air cops.

I spent the next 20 minutes furiously typing this thinking I would feel better about the whole experience. I don’t feel better but it’s one of those things that we can’t really do anything about. At least I provided a story for my wife to tell over and over for years to come which will probably be remembered as “the time I almost got arrested on a plane”

Remembering my customer service experience with the cruise line just before this flight, there is a lot airlines could learn from them. We’ll explore specific things that could be done next, when we continue to explore what airlines could learn from cruise lines.

Flickr photo by Atomic Taco

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