Customer isn't always right at 30,000 Feet
We are definitely in a service economy and customers have many avenues to provide feedback on products or services they purchase, including immediate commentary posted on Twitter, Facebook and other channels. As a frequent air traveler, I was heartened to see the article by Scott McCartney in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Dear Airline, Here's the Problem." McCartney outlined the increasing trend of forward-thinking airlines that are "blitzing customers with satisfaction surveys, often right after they step off the airplane." My preferred airline is JetBlue and I can attest to their solicitation of customer feedback, as well as their quickness to offer something, such as a discount on a future flight or other compensation, to their customers who have suffered a flight delay or other issues. I've been pleasantly surprised over the years about their level of customer communication and service and it has made me a loyal supporter of that airline.
According to McCartney's article, some of the airlines other than JetBlue who are keeping their finger on the pulse of the customer feedback loop are Southwest (another favorite airline of mine), Virgin Atlantic, United, Delta and American. I know USAirways is now part of American, but I must say I'm not surprised they were not listed in this article as an airline that is soliciting (and monitoring for) customer feedback. I just had an experience with a USAirways direct 5.5 hour flight in which I had booked aisle seats for both legs of the trip and discovered upon check in that I had been moved to a middle seat in the last possible row. My only recourse was to pay extra for a middle seat in an emergency aisle. I did provide feedback, although it wasn't solicited, and the response I received from a USAirways customer service representative was candid, if disturbing: "To guarantee a seat, you need to purchase a Choice Seat."
It made me wonder if, instead of collecting feedback and wanting to make customers happier and more loyal to the airline, USAirways is, instead, leveraging analytics to determine which travelers (either classes of travelers, such as business travelers, or, perhaps even specific travelers like myself) will be more likely to pay extra for more legroom or a better seat. I have a suspicion that they may be following a revenue strategy to move those travelers to worse seats to make sure the Choice Seats are all paid for and full. I have no proof this is the case, but my experience made me wonder.
In McCartney's article on airline surveys, Delta's director of customer experience, said surveys "give people a chance to vent so anger doesn't build up and turn into something more." Since USAirways hasn't surveyed me, I checked the USAirways section of a website that allows airline passengers to provide feedback, much as TripAdvisor and Yelp allow customers to provide feedback on hotels and restaurants. It seems I was not alone in having my seat changed with no notice on USAirways. Checking through the comments, it's clear that many aspects of their service, including this approach to seat changing, certainly is raising the ire of the USAirways passengers, well beyond the complaints cited in McCartney's article who were, for example, griping that they were "bored with the same soundtrack" on Virgin's gaming system.
After more than a quarter century in a client-facing role, I know well that my ability to retain clients is only as good as the service and results those customers continue to receive from me and my colleagues. It's good to hear that the airlines -- even some of the old guard brands -- are recognizing this fact and acting on it, prompted by the competitive pressure from newer brands like JetBlue. One can only hope that the airlines like USAirways that don't appear to be following that philosophy will lose in the long run unless they change their communications and customer service styles. They certainly have lost this passenger.