In which Jill finds herself floating in a most peculiar way.
On a recent flight from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires I found myself enjoying air travel for the first time in a long while. It was my second experience flying Emirates Airways. My first was a flight from London to Dubai in the 1990s. On that flight Emirates plied me with satay skewers and champagne, so my expectations were already as high as 35,000 feet.
The flight attendant greeted me as I stepped aboard and guided me to my seat. Then came the warm nuts and the even warmer (and lavender-scented!) washcloth. One flight attendant brought me a feather pillow. Another, after I’d declined lunch, urged me to try the blueberry cheesecake with my coffee. When I extracted my laptop from my briefcase she helpfully pointed out the power jack in my armrest. An hour into the flight she recalled the milk in my coffee and the cream in my seatmate’s. She admired my sandals, and slyly asked if I’d like to take some extra cheesecake with me to my destination. I liked her very, very much.
Of course I can’t help contrasting this experience with my usual routine with the U.S. carriers. I won’t name the airline I fly most. Anyone can find anything on the web these days, and that includes a martinet flight attendant out for some casual revenge. I’m selfish enough to want ice in my tepid Fresca and my bags to show up in my destination city. So let’s just say that the friendly skies aren’t as friendly as they used to be.
But this does suggest why commodity businesses—be they airlines or toothpaste purveyors—are one well-connected customer away from an avalanche of defections. These days social media sentiments go viral faster than a locomotive—which, not to put too fine a point on it, usually has a better on-time arrival score than my default airline. Witness the popularity of the #AmericanAirlinesSucks hashtag or the viral video about United breaking a guy’s guitar (over 12 million views on YouTube). Not that there’s anything wrong with United. I’m just saying.
Airlines can become positively smug about the loyalty their frequent-flier programs engender. But is it really loyalty or just a compromise to get a little back for what we’re enduring? Surveying my friends (yes, over cheesecake) the other night, everyone agreed that if they could fly anywhere for free once a year, their airline of choice would be completely different. As it is, with ever more rigid blackout dates and escalating service fees, redeeming points isn’t easy.
The best customer relationship management system and the most automated websites are no match for a tired customer community who might grudgingly do business with you but will discourage new prospective customers from jumping on board. It’s no coincidence that commodity businesses are the most interested in acquiring big data technologies to perform social media and sentiment analysis. They need to be one step ahead of the angry mob.
To be fair, I don’t know how liberal Emirates is doling out mileage rewards. (Full disclosure: my former consulting company did work for its Skywards program ten years ago.) All I know is that I got no points for flying Emirates. The flight attendants seem to like their work, there’s milk in my coffee, and the power jack actually works. Is that too much to ask? In the meantime, my air miles are piling up faster than…well, you know.
Photo by davidwilson1949 via Flickr (Creative Commons license)