While traveling for work recently, I noticed a basket on the counter in the men's room of an office building that held some hard candies and disposable toothbrushes, sitting next to a large bottle of mouthwash with small disposable cups. While the supplies were pretty unremarkable, that restroom is the one that employment candidates use before their interviews for a well-known hotel company. The company provided those supplies to help candidates feel as ready as they can for their interviews.
I've worked with quite a few airlines in North America and Europe, plus a few others scattered around the globe, and I'll be damned if I can remember seeing anything like this at any airline. The reason is simple: Airlines have lost the art of hospitality. To get it back, they should take some cues from the hotel industry.
Airlines are pilloried regularly for customer service lapses: tight seats, shrinking legroom and customer reviews that rank airlines just above bill collectors. Although airlines have recently added more amenities, like bringing back meals on long flights, improving food and drink options, or adding free texting or Wi-Fi, they don't get much credit for it in the court of public opinion.
When United passenger David Dao was dragged off a plane by security officers earlier this year, it put the spotlight on another issue: overbooking. Airlines routinely overbook flights for a variety of reasons, including no-show rates that in some cases exceed 20%, but nonetheless, the incident was a PR disaster for United.
Meanwhile, hotels follow the exact same practice of overbooking, and it never makes the press. Why? Because while airline passengers are unceremoniously “bumped” from flights, and only receive hard to use travel vouchers to make up for the inconvenience, the hotel industry has made “walking a guest” (moving them from the hotel they originally booked to another hotel in the event of an overbooking) an art form. It’s taught in hotel schools, blogged about, and discussed ad nauseam by those in the industry.
Compared to airlines, hotels do it right. There’s a huge attitude difference. Hotel employees are apologetic. They try to get you a better room at the other hotel and they’ll call a cab to get you there. Meanwhile, the airline employees say: “Here’s your voucher. Use it in the next year before it expires.” Even the terminology shows the difference: Would you rather be “walked” or “bumped”?
Airlines need to change their culture by behaving more like the hotel industry. Hotel companies expect every employee to be hospitable and treat the customer right, and their employees also are much more empowered to do things and make decisions. At hotels, the culture is focused on hospitality, while at airlines, there’s a process and a rule for everything. That culture often leads to PR disasters.
For airlines, if employees communicate with customers better and use their authority to make good decisions for both the company and the customer, it will go a long way toward preventing PR disasters and improving their customer perception. To really make a difference, airlines need to rebuild hospitality as a core element of their culture.