Five reasons the airlines don’t need to care about you

I’m getting on a plane next week, and I’m not looking forward to it. This will be yet another long, painful flight this year – and I’ve already had more than I have in a while. Though I’m getting used to this sort of business travel again, I can’t say that I like it. All the time spent in transit, quite frankly, blows.

It isn’t unusual at this point to lament the state of customer service in an industry that won’t even call us customers. How nice it would be to be treated well and given a product worth consuming, right? Well, we all know that isn’t going to happen. And the truth is that there’s no reason for it.

The airline industry really wouldn’t benefit from making our lives better, while the impact of the status quo on airline shareholders is as positive as it is evident. Let’s take a look at five reasons why it would be stupid for the airlines to start treating us better:
1. You get what you pay for: when I booked my flight to London (my upcoming trip), one thing mattered: price. I went with Delta, and it’s been years since I’ve had a good experience on that carrier. That didn’t matter to me, though. Price did.

Even if good service were a differentiator, it probably wouldn’t cause sales to surge. If you don’t pay extra for leg room or other forms of premium seating, then you definitely wouldn’t pay more for a ticket on an airline committed to customer service.

2. The current model seems to be working: a la carte pricing, extra fees and few (if any) amenities – along with route cuts and other operational changes – have taken the airlines out of the red and into the black. They’re making money, which really is the only reason they exist.

The fact that people gripe doesn’t mean they aren’t responding to the product. We’re spending a lot of money on extras … because we want them. Lower fares, net of amenities, provide travel consumers with the starting place they want. They can add (and pay) if they choose. In this market, service just isn’t a priority.

3. The right people are happy: the first thing you’ll learn in any business ethics course is that a company’s primary obligation is to its shareholders. So, if a company can create shareholder wealth while pissing off its customers, then it should probably stay the course. The airline industry, generally, has been doing this.

If shareholders are happy, we don’t have to be. If customer service becomes a problem for airlines to the point that it causes sales to drop, then the shareholders won’t be happy, and customer service becomes a priority.

4. Expectations are low and probably won’t change: let’s say you’re an airline executive, and you want to rehabilitate your company’s image. What would you have to do? The answer is pretty simple: spend a lot of money. You’d have to invest in equipment, operations, training and (after that) marketing. You’d have to change the business fundamentally, and it would cost a fortune. Would you do all this just to keep your customers happy? In all likelihood, you’d do it only if the financial upside were sufficient to justify the hefty investment. The outcome you’d need, however, doesn’t seem likely in this market.

It’s not impossible. JetBlue did turn itself around a few years ago, becoming an efficient and customer-friendly organization. It’s a smaller airline, though, which made the process easier. Also, there were issues beyond customer service that made such a bold change necessary.

5. You wouldn’t appreciate it anyway: why? Let’s face it – we buy on price. It keeps coming back to that. We want cheap, and airlines want profit. The airlines have found a way to deliver the former in a way that enables the latter. The travel industry and its consumers appear to have found some degree of balance in this regard. Ultimately, we really don’t care much about service … so why should the airlines?

[photo by Refracted Moments via Flickr]