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Leverage your strengths

Today’s guest post is from Freight Dawg (gotta like that name), who writes about Southwest Airlines’ free baggage policy.

An additional thought to take away from this: Leverage your strengths.

Home run hitters don’t work on their pitching. They work on their hitting.

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Focus on their burden, not yours

A couple of weeks back, there was a bit of a fuss about United Airlines kicking people off an overweight plane based on the fare they paid.

As the discussion (and the comments) run their course in this story, there were a number of suggestions on how to choose which passengers to remove in order to get the plane to flyable weight:

  • By passenger weight
  • By ticket purchase date
  • By price paid for the ticket
  • By frequent flier status and level
  • By check-in time
  • Or opting to remove some cargo or baggage rather than passengers

We could probably make a passable argument for each of these strategies, but we’d be looking in the wrong direction.

Check the compass

The problem is that each of these strategies are focused on the wrong thing: The airline and its weight problem (likewise the underlying failure to manage their business).

The right focus is that each customer bought a ticket with the audacious expectation that they would be transported somewhere at a specific (more or less) time..and they didn’t buy a ticket with Vegas odds printed on it.

I realize it might seem quaint or old-fashioned to expect that a customer-purchased ticket actually *means* something, so consider an alternative situation.

Imagine if you showed up at the Super Bowl (or worse, a LSU Tigers home football game) and found your seat taken. After a fruitless argument with the person in your seat, you find an usher and ask them to get this person moved only to have them tell you that your seat was sold to 3 other people and the guy sitting in it was the first of the 4 of you to arrive. You must leave the stadium. But don’t worry, we’ll let you watch the game later on TV, and for the same price.

Only in the airline business does this seem a normal, much less acceptable, way to treat customers.


Yes, I know there are regulations allowing them to overbook and treat people like a box at the UPS Store, but they aren’t *forced* to do so. They’ve make a conscious choice to treat their customers as if they were replaceable.

They’ve also made a conscious choice to design/run their systems such that at game time, they’re forced to make changes that negatively impact their customers rather than using those systems to assure that customers are never (or very rarely) impacted.

Far too often, the burden of these game time airline decisions fall on the customer who is not only blameless but unable to take any steps to prevent the problem, with the exception of avoiding travel altogether.


When sales and operations systems are tightly integrated, you’ll know in advance that the cargo booking Joe just sold will result in an overweight flight based on bookings already sold and current passenger and baggage weight trends.

You’ll know the delivery constraints of cargo bookings and whether or not a particular piece/load of cargo is heavier than usual and whether or not its delivery can be delayed without impacting the cargo customer, and you’ll know that before having to load it. Result: you don’t have to bump passengers.

When the choice is made not to create (or effectively use) systems like this, less-intelligent decisions get made and customers get treated like cattle. This isn’t the fault of Osama or the TSA, it’s a choice made by airlines and airports.


Imagine what would happen if an airline stated that “We will never overbook our clientele” and then delivered on that promise.

The right choice for you – just like with the airlines – is to implement automated systems that prevent things like this from occurring.

Take a look at your own business. Think about how your systems and business processes have gaps that cause problems that your customers are forced to deal with. What system changes can you make to prevent these things from happening?

What intelligence can you build into your day to day processes so that these things not only never happen again, but so that your day to day processes become more efficient and friendlier to your bottom line AND your customers?

In this competitive situation, would you rather be the airline that overbooks or the one that doesn’t?  Which would you choose to fly with?

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A bus of a different color

Post-Katrina School Bus
Creative Commons License photo credit: laffy4k

When I say “bus travel”, I’m guessing that many / some / most of you think of things on this list (and maybe some others):

  • Greyhound (et al)
  • Tour buses full of senior citizens
  • A noisy school bus full of kids
  • people of lesser means
  • panhandlers
  • bus terminals
  • when will it arrive?

Here are a few things that I’ll bet you don’t think of when it comes to bus travel:

  • Comfort
  • Productivity
  • Care-free
  • Customer service
  • Wireless
  • Convenience
  • Safety

Red Arrow Motorcoach in Canada thinks a little differently about bus travel. For starters, they don’t even use the word “bus”. Like most companies of their type, they call it “motorcoach service”.

Because they know that you don’t want to sit around their bus terminal waiting an extra 30 to 300 minutes for your friend, family or colleague, they offer visual location tracking of their bus on their website, PLUS they will email and/or text you when the motorcoach is between 5 and 20 minutes (your choice) of reaching its destination.

Think about that benefit. It isn’t for the customer. It’s for someone who hasn’t even bought a ticket: the person meeting the customer at their station.

Not your grandpa’s bus

The customer isn’t ignored, however. Red Arrow’s website includes online reservations and a virtual tour of their coaches, which include a complimentary galley with drinks and snacks.

Their motorcoaches have a choice of plush or leather seats and they are careful to point out that they offer 30% more legroom than on a typical airliner.

For travelers with laptops, their coaches include pulldown tables, electrical plugs and wireless internet. Compare that to an airliner, which is often too cramped to use a laptop unless you’re in first class.

Their on-board magazine points out that you never have to turn off your cell phone and that the positive amenities of air travel (such as they are) are met on their motorcoaches as well.

Things the website missed

  • What’s the environment like at their drop-off/pickup points? Is it well-lit?
  • Does the place look safe if I step off the bus at 10pm or if I have to wait an extra hour due to weather or other delays?Do they have 24 hour security personnel on-site? Cameras? Yes, I know it’s Canada, but bear with me anyway.
  • Which stations have a nearby car rental?  (they do have car rental partners)
  • Do the stations offer wireless?
  • How does the station differ from typical bus stations?

You get the idea.

And the point of all this?

Cracks in the plumbing

What do people automatically think when your type of business is mentioned? Looking for an example? Think “plumbers”.

What are you doing to counteract and/or take advantage of that image? What sets you apart – and not just a little.

What are you doing that will completely change your prospective customer’s perception of your business?

What should you be doing that you just haven’t gotten around to?

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Hold that plane

Something amazing happened to me during my trip to Vegas late last month: An airline exceeded my expectations.

“Exceeded” is a bit of a misnomer because my expectations are so low with airlines in general, but the fact is that they treated me like I would expect to be treated.

These days, that’s exceeding expectations.

I was flying Alaska Airlines from Vegas to Seattle and we had a terrible headwind that made us 45 minutes late.  Normally, I wouldn’t care but I had a 55 minute layover and had to change terminals.

After waiting an interminable amount of time for the late plane to unload, bypassing every restroom in the airport (time’s a wasting) as I ran through the airport like OJ (hey – it was running like OJ to me) to barely make the little automated tram to the next terminal, then doing the OJ again from the tram to my gate…I arrived.

Most of the lights in the terminal where I ended up were out as all the other gates were closed. When I finally arrived, there were two people in that part of the terminal: Me and the Alaska gate agent.

She waved me toward the open gate exit and said “We’d almost given up on you.”

In 25+ years of traveling, I’ve never had someone hold a plane for me. Maybe it was because it was the end of the day. Maybe it was because they didn’t want to pay for a hotel for the night, much less the aggravation of dealing with rebooking me.

No matter what it was, it would have been easy to let that plane go.

But they didn’t.

The agent could have called it a night – it was quite clear that they were done for the day – it was after 9pm in this very sleepy corner of SeaTac.

But she didn’t. I doubt she held that plane because of an extensive management training course. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s simply the right kind of person for that job.

What do you do to figure out whether someone is the right kind of person for a customer-facing job?

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Are you using your white hair too?

In the days before 9/11, our local airport (Glacier International aka FCA) had a mix of mostly Boeing 737/727, prop and regional jet traffic.

Since 9/11, most of our traffic other than flights to Minneapolis are regional jets or props. When I fly Delta to Salt Lake, for example, I’m usually flying some Delta Skywest regional jet (typically a Canadair model) that is codeshared with Delta.

Before much of the economy cratered over the last year, it wasn’t unusual to see two pilots in the cockpit of these regional jets that looked young enough to have just finished Rush Week at a local university.

Now, I don’t mean to put them down – after all, we always flew safely, never had an unprofessional effort by the pilots and the overall quality of the flight itself appeared no different than any other trip with more experienced pilots – still, there was always a comment or two by passengers when they saw a flight crew that looked like they had been shaving for less than 10 years (in the case of a male crewmembers).

With all the shakeup in the economy and airline industry, these regional jets are now being captained by what appear to be very experienced, mostly white-haired guys who are probably old enough to have flown combat in Vietnam.  As the airlines downsize the number of flights, experienced pilots get pushed down the system to the regional jets.

The smart thing that the airlines are doing – at least SkyWest – is pairing these experienced pilots with the younger pilots who were already flying with them. The ability to let these experienced folks mentor the younger pilots is huge – and it wasn’t something the airlines appeared to be doing prior to changes in the economy.

I talked with several passengers about this during my recent trip to Vegas and all of them found it not only smart business – but comforting to have 30+ years of experience in the cockpit instead of the assumption of 5 or 10 years – even if the younger pilot was doing the flying.

How does this relate to your business?

  • How are your new staff members learning the ropes? How are they getting “co-pilot” experience with the equivalent of your white-haired, experienced pilots?
  • Looking up into the cockpit and seeing a 50-ish white-haired guy brings confidence in the delivery of air travel without saying a word. For all we know, that guy had no more experience than the co-pilot, or came out of a 20 year retirement due to losses in the stock market and might have fewer regional jet flight hours than the young co-pilot. Didn’t matter, at least until we had the chance to find out more. What gives your customers’ confidence about your business’ ability to deliver with safety and high quality? What are you doing to show them the “white hair” or whatever it takes in your line of work?
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A not so little reason why American Airlines loses millions

While it would be easy to squeeze them off one by one, I won’t go into all the obvious reasons.

This one is a bit more subtle but just as deadly to a company. The really poisonous thing is that attitudes like this come from the top down and they are CYA’d all the way up the food chain.

Further comment on this whole airline thing will come in a future post, but for now, just check out Dustin’s experience in today’s triple feature guest post from Dustin Curtis.

Your takeaway?

Two things:

First, little things matter. Ever watch someone try to use your product or website? Ever watch them try to find information in your brochure or find the milk in your store? You make them crazy. Really. Just watch them, but don’t say I didn’t warn you – it’ll make *you* crazy until you fix your business.

Second, customer feedback matters. If you can’t fix it in an hour, a day or a week, people generally understand if you’ll just take the time to tell your story. On the other hand, if you don’t respond or you respond rudely, they’ll remember it for years and tell everyone they know. Not that difficult, yet all too rare.

PS: Dustin – Yeah, I know. The blog badly needs a redesign.

Tomorrow, more from Dustin. Why? Because he understands that little things matter, even to the sweaty guy in the last row on JetBlue.

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Something special in the air

I have to say that I never expected a country-western song to be a guest post, but it is what it is.

For the rest of the story about how United Airlines baggage handlers trashed Dave Carroll’s guitar and more importantly, their customer service and management mistakes afterwards, drop over to

4.5 million views later, it’s more than the old saw that customers who have a bad experience tell 10 people. Nowadays, they can tell everyone, everywhere.

If your service isn’t what it should be, don’t be surprised if you end up going viral for all the wrong reasons.

Of course, that assumes that you care in the first place.

PS: Play close attention to the winner in this deal: Taylor Guitars.

Update: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer covers the story.

Update: United Breaks Guitars – Song 2

Update: A video that was supposedly made by the Mrs. Irlweg referred to in both songs. I don’t know if it’s really her or not. If it is, not a wise move IMO.

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Selling the unsellable

loaded for bear
Creative Commons License photo credit: striatic

Adelaide, a Charlotte ticket agent with Delta Airlines, had undoubtedly heard similar passenger comments hundreds if not thousands of times.

“$15 a bag and $40 for two? What’s with that?”

She handled it well, including laughing at the ( joking) speculation by other passengers that all the luggage fees go to her personally. Still, it was clear that she was handling it off the cuff.

But was she trained by Delta to discuss it in a way that would defuse the passenger’s annoyance and/or anger?

Did her employer offer training for handling the situation so that she would not to simply repeat the corporate mantra (whatever that might be), but actually engage in a meaningful conversation with her customer as they check in and deal with their bags?

It wasn’t clear that Delta had trained their staff – including Adelaide – to deal with that question and do so disarmingly.

Obviously, it’s an unpleasant position to place your public-facing staff, so why not arm them with the perfect response that disarms most clients?

Why not prepare them to handle the situation in a way that doesn’t leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouth?

Sometimes, even the things you don’t sell need to be sold.

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Airlines: What’s more valuable than a customer?

No 296!.....I am NOT a
Creative Commons License photo credit: law_keven

One of the things that is most frustrating and wonderful these days are… airlines.

Why frustrating and wonderful?

  • They teach us far more than how NOT to treat people.
  • They teach us how not to make a fair number of business decisions.
  • They teach us how not to empower our staff.
  • They teach us how not to save money in our business.
  • They teach us how not to attract more clients.

Wonderful when we see examples of things to never do in our own business. Frustrating when they happen to us.


Ever notice that most public-facing airline employees are just about powerless to make a change that makes perfect sense? It’s by design.

For example, a friend recently told me this story about his daughter flying home from college for spring break:

My daughter has an economy class reservation on Frontier for Saturday (less than $300 round-trip and lots of penalties for switching).

She finds out her classes are out early and can fly out on Thursday.

So we check the Frontier website and the flights are booked solid for the spring break weekend and all the flights on Thursday have dozens of open seats.

I call up Frontier and suggest that moving her to an empty seat on Thursday and selling her old seat on Saturday would be gravy for the airline. The one-way tickets are going for $500 on Thursday and Friday.

Even the supervisor can’t make the deal.

He said something about a customer buying a cheap ticket and switching to a more expensive day;  but she wanted to switch from a flight where there were no ticket available to a flight where that has dozens of empty seats.

Classic supply and demand.

Way more important than that, it’s classic supply and demand where the salable asset becomes worthless every day, every hour, every few minutes.

The asset? Empty airplane seats that safely move from place to place in a specific time frame.

Like milk and hotel rooms, airplane seats spoil. Once a certain period of time passes, they’re worthless. And a lot more expensive than milk when they go bad.

Airlines 101: Ignore the customer

We have a customer who is taking a fragile, expendable, time-bound asset (an empty airplane seat on Thursday) and offering to make it more valuable by trading it for a clearly MORE valuable seat on a busy travel day in the future on a prime travel day.

I suspect you’d have to look very hard to find one airline employee who fails to understand the value proposition being offered by their customer. In fact, I’ll bet they all understand it.

Sadly, it appears that not one has the power to take action in the face of that value.

So as my friend says, “Here you have the airlines cutting prices to get people to fly and even the Frontier supervisors don’t have the authority to help Frontier make a profit all because they don’t trust their customers.”

What do you sell?

Every now and then I ask you if you really, truly know what you sell.

Airlines sell fragile, time-bound expendable assets. Surely they know this, but they don’t act like it.

They act, empower their staff and create systems that send the message that they sell something entirely different: Reservations, or something like them.

Why do I say that? Because they treat the reservation with far more reverence than they do the customer.

Once the customer passes by the ticket agent at the gate, in many cases they are treated like cattle at a feedlot. At that point, the reservation is worthless, thus the customer holding it has now become a liability, an expense, and/or a burden.

In extreme situations where a plane has a problem, we don’t hustle the (valuable) customer back to the terminal where they could consume an expiring asset we haven’t yet sold (seats on other planes), instead we devalue them by holding them prisoner on the tarmac for hours.

An empowered captain would return his customers to the gate where they could continue their travel, consume unused and about-to-devalue assets. But that isn’t what happens.

Have you truly empowered your staff? Can they take action to maximize your customers’ experience AND the value of the assets you sell?

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Ignore customers at your peril

Creative Commons License photo credit: WTL photos

On a recent 737-based flight, I got to tinker with Delta Airlines’ updated seat back video system, which includes TV, movies, games, flight information and music.

I was impressed when the first prompt that came up was for a language.

Impressed because it showed that they were thinking about all of their customers, not just the North American-based ones. Think “sources of growth”

I chose English.

One of the things I like to watch during flight is the GPS-driven aerial map with rotating altitude / airspeed / head wind, temperature indicators. I guess it’s the geek in me:)

Having chose English, I assumed I would get an English map. After all, I am a programmer by training.

Silly me.

Instead I got a map that rotated between English (with miles/mph etc) , English with meters/metres, Spanish with miles/mph and Spanish with meters/metres.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t care, but the insertion of 3 additional translations (regardless of which one I wanted) delayed the delivery of information since it had to be presented in 4 different formats.

Why again did they ask me which language to use?

Little things mean a lot

The flight arrived on time (though a later one did not, prompting re-enactments of OJ Simpson running through airports as a spokesman for Hertz). The landing in Atlanta was perfect.

Yet several days later that map application still sticks in my mind.

Just as a test, I switched the panel’s language to Dutch. Some words in the menu were translated, some were not.

The “moving map” with altitude, air temperature etc? It didn’t change at all, still rotating through 2 sets of English and 2 sets of Spanish info.

The same nugget of paying attention easily translates into other businesses.

Little details sometimes make the biggest difference, especially when you set the expectation (which you should) with things like a language prompt.

Congruency. Setting an expectation by doing one thing creates the expectation in other areas.

More airline related posts coming, as is always the case after I travel…just setting the expectation, you know.