Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dear Dear, we're cramming them in

It took me more than three years to persuade British Airways that commencing an e-mail to a frequent flyer with the expression "Dear Dear" was not the best way to "optimise customer engagement", as the airline's marketing types would call it. But, for far longer than it should have, whenever BA's Executive Club wrote to me, there it would be: "Dear Dear Mr. Poulter."

Of course, a less bothered me would have lived with what was obviously the result of a computer glitch. But as someone whose job involves managing a company's reputation, I thought that, out of professional brotherhood, it would be collegial to point out that this glitch actually made BA look stupid, and gave the impression that computers, not people were interacting with the airline's paying punters.

Worse, the e-mails lacked any means of writing back to the "James Hillier" who apparently sent them. No return e-mail address, no postal address, no phone number with which - with genuine intent to help - I could point out the silliness of the "Dear Dear" salutation.

Eventually, and out of sheer frustration, I resorted to Twitter. Initially, signs were good. A slightly cheeky tweet from me resulted in a direct message from BA's social media team promising to look into it. Shortly after I received this assurance I found myself mysteriously upgraded to business class on a flight from Los Angeles. You can draw your own conclusion as to why.

In fairness, the "Dear Dear"s have now stopped. Someone, somewhere in customer marketing has solved the glitch. British Airways is by far, however, not the worst when it comes to customer service and in fact, for the most part (apart from a disastrous lost baggage saga in Chicago two years ago) it is the airline I prefer to travel with the most. But the e-mail issue highlighted how dealing with airlines has become more and more complicated, and less and less about dealing with living, breathing human beings.

This showed itself acutely a few weeks ago when I tried - foolishly - to contact Air France in the first week of August to fix a problem with a booking I'd made with Flying Blue frequent flyer miles.

Being the start of the marathon French holiday season, Air France was clearly understaffed when I tried to solve the issue over the phone. Calling a number sounds simple enough, but it took three attempts (including one which resulted in me getting cut off) to speak to someone - as opposed to a recorded message - and when I did, I was advised that, for help in English I would need to call back from a phone in the UK...!

On pointing out that I was in France trying to book a flight to London, I got cut off again. Eventually I got through to a very nice Romanian lady called Marina who couldn't have been any more helpful.

It would be unfair to single out Air France. Like most of the major 'flag carriers' they are no better and no worse than any other national airline. But, as with all of them, the customer experience is being increasingly sacrificed for cost.

Air France and United Airlines, for example, now have passengers do the work that check-in staff used to do: checking in. At Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, Air France economy passengers have to use unmanned terminals to check-in, print out their boarding pass and print their own baggage label...before then taking it all to a drop-off desk where a member of staff checks the bag onto the conveyor belt. The same with United at Newark International in New Jersey.

Quite what this achieves is lost on me. The 'fast bag drop' queues are just as long, if not longer, than they would be with traditional check-in desks. And, of course, somewhere in the marketing communication, the airlines will call this an improvement to the customer experience. What they're actually doing, of course, is saving money to make money, the major imperative of all airlines.

We've long abandoned the notion that flying is a luxury. In fact, unless you're privileged enough (or have a generous employer) to fly in first or business class, the majority of us will endure flying in economy. Which has become a living hell.

Mass air travel is now a long way from those 1960s images of Pan-Am and BOAC cabins, full of pipe-smoking Cary Grant lookalikes in blazers, with their female companions, decked out in twinsets and pearls, ordering gin and tonics from poster girl stewardesses, as they were then known.

Today, it is a cramped ordeal, worsened by passive-agressive duals over armrests and reclining seats, and shrinking overhead locker space due to inconsiderate Muppets bringing ever larger bags onboard just to save them a 20-minute wait at the other end.

Bit by bit, and by stealth, airlines are cramming us in like never before, and the so-called low-cost revolution hasn't really benefitted anyone. By far the worst offence is the reconfiguring of cabins to include more premium seats (i.e. business class and 'premium economy'), while adding even more seats in economy. On regional flights, that will mean more rows, but on long-haul, airlines are even adding seats to the rows themselves, with narrower seats enabling ten-seat rows on wide-bodied jets.

As pointed out in Bloomberg Business Week some months ago, Bill McGee, an airline industry veteran and contributing editor to Consumer Reports, noted that: "The roomiest economy seats you can book on the [United States'] four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s."

Indeed, as the airline industry continues to consolidate through mergers, acquisitions and alliances, the competitive need to differentiate is gradually eroding. There is even talk of one American airline, Delta, introducing a fifth, 'sub-economy' class, which presumably is just a row of wooden benches and a communal bucket for a toilet.

British Airways does, however, appear to have recognised that passenger comfort is, after all, a means to boost income, not just make more by cramming more of us in. The airline has announced that its new fleet of Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners will have economy seats half an inch wider than those on their 787-8 Dreamliner model that came into operation in 2013.

When Boeing launched the Dreamliner it promised a "revolutionary" aircraft featuring innovations like mood lighting and improved air quality to make the passenger experience more enjoyable. When I flew on BA's Dreamliner to Newark last year, it was anything but enjoyable, and was so cramped in economy that I'd wished I'd flown on one of United's ageing Boeing 757s and 767s that fly the same route.

BA has now admitted that seating arrangements on its initial fleet of Dreamliners "felt a bit tight", and that it, along with other 787 operators, had tried to squeeze too many nine-seat economy class rows in, instead of eight seats as Boeing had originally intended for the aircraft. And so, the new BA 787s will offer an economy class seat pitch of 32 inches instead of the current 31, and will feature wider seats (at the expense of aisle width) of 17.3 inches instead of the current 16.8.

I would rather airlines saved money on other things to ensure that the most important aspect of flying - the seat - was as comfortable as possible for the price of the ticket booked. In the United States - where airline comfort and service quality has always, in my view, been a long way behind Europe - travelling city-to-city, across country or even just across a state, is an ordeal.

Even JetBlue - an airline that bucked the industry by offering comfortable leather seats and inflight satellite TV, as well as not putting fees on everything - is joining the club of American carriers putting more and smaller seats onto their planes, decreasing leg room and introducing a range of tarriffs for anything from bags to WiFi.

No doubt this trend towards 'less-is-actually-less' will be appreciated by Wall Street's speculators (though I doubt many of them fly economy class...): in 2013 the main US airlines earned more than $30 billion from add-ons alone, items that would have once been incorporated into the ticket price.

There is a strong argument that some extras are justfiable: while I object to being charged exorbitant rates for WiFi by hotels (for whom it is part of their infrastructure overhead, like lighting and heating), I don't see it as a problem to charge for it inflight, where it is a premium feature.

If being offered sandwiches and drinks for a reasonable price keeps ticket prices down, I'm fine, so long as you don't have to sit next to the guy eating the pizza he brought with him for a five-hour flight from New York to San Francisco. But once airlines start gouging for just a handful of kilos over a baggage allowance, or charge you for "the extra legroom" offered by an exit row when, by law, every flight has to have someone sitting in those seats, we have a problem.

And then there is the bizarre practice of overbooking. You choose your flights, based on how they fit your plans, you pay for them, turn up at the airport at the time you were asked to be there and then discover that your seat has been given to someone else, and would you accept vouchers to take a later flight?

This is nothing but hedging: airlines bet on the fact that a certain percentage of passengers will always fail to turn up for a flight. But with the majority of these being business travellers on expensive, flexible tickets, it's always the poor mug in economy who gets bounced.

There are, of course, plenty of valid arguments to justify airlines doing all this to us, their would-be loyal customers. In principle, all these measures - fees, overbooking, ten-seat economy class rows - are designed to maximise profits while minimising costs, which should mean everyone - passengers, airlines and their shareholders alike - get to benefit. But, really, do they?

Some of us have to travel, either for work or to visit familes. Others choose to travel because they can. None should be penalised. Robert Louis Stevenson clearly didn't have the era of low-cost aviation in mind when he posed the notion that "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive". These days, you can't wait to get off the plane.

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