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Archive for the ‘air travel’ Category

1. Bad Customer Service

As a follow-up to my US air travel rants of yore, this piece by Joseph Jaffe (also a follow-up to his own rants on the same subject – his being specific to Delta Airlines):

A bunch of my colleagues experienced the delta skelter.

About 10% of the Microsoft people travelling from Atlanta to Brussels on july 21st couldn’t find their luggage in Brussels. Some of the luggage are still missing today. Among the retrieved ones, the suitcases of my lovely colleagues Valérie and Virginie… in  very bad shape (see picture). Valérie called Delta today to discuss a compensation but they asked her to call again within a week.  They obviously don’t have the time to handle her complain.

Bad goes around.

Wow. Check out the picture of the bag here. Imagine if you took your car into a mechanic’s shop for service, it came back with a huge dent in the hood and grease stains all over the seats, and the customer service manager told you “uh, yeah, sorry ’bout that… Why don’t you come back later this week when I have time to talk to you.”

Imagine any company outside of the airline industry doing this. “Sorry about your suits sir, the dry-cleaning machine must have malfunctioned. Come back later this week and we’ll see what we can do for you.” I don’t think so.

2. Bait & Switch Tactics

Seth Godin also focuses on the airline industry today with this:

I feel badly for the airline industry. They are caught in a never-ending price war due to online websites and their own commodification. Pick the cheapest flight to get from here to there…

The natural short-term solution is bait and switch. Advertise the lowest price you can imagine and then require add on fees so you can actually make a profit.

Air Canada, which my readers generally concur is the single worst major airline in North America, has a fascinating policy. No oversized duffel bags, regardless of weight, unless they contain hockey gear. No shin guards, you pay $80 a bag.

Of course, you can have whatever rules you want, even if they’re only designed to help defensemen. The problems with bait and switch are:

1. You have to be very careful to apply them equally, because people hate being treated worse than everyone else.

2. You have to be prepared for anger, resentment and brand disintegration.

 See what his answer to pain vs. pleasure is for companies like Air Canada here. (Hint: Disney has a pretty good system in place.)

3. Community Managers

Chris Brogan has a great piece on the essential skills of a community manager, which ties in nicely with the Tribalization of Business post from Monday. Some of these skills include being experienced communicators, being ambassadors and advocates all in one, being bodyguards and protectors, etc. Great post, but the real gold here is found within the comments. Here are two of my favorite:

“The great community manager is able to match the importance of the bottom line with the requirement of providing customers with a feeling of being #1. He or she is an advocate for the customer while being able to discern what is realistic ahead of time.” – Sol Young

“Not a skill, but an essential for a good community manager is to be empowered by their organization. They need to have very public, spontaneous conversations; sometimes shiny happy ones, sometimes trickier ones. Not an easy string for many companies to cut, but the only way for real conversation and communities to evolve.” – Pamela O’Hara

Join the conversation here.

Chris Abraham follows suit with this post about the importance of Community Leaders:

I woke up to an amazing article written by Jonathan Trenn, The fallacy of community, and I responded in a comment to a pretty passionate article and a passionate comment string, and here’s what I wrote — and I have expanded the argument below, so it is an expansion:

Gosh, I don’t know what to say here… there are so many different types of communities, many of which can surely be manufactured. What every successful community requires is community leadership. Community leadership can be organic and emergent or they can be hired in the form of online community managers or facilitators. A strong leadership — people who have skin in the game — is more important than a good web application; also, these community leaders are often the main draw to the community and can be the difference between keeping or losing your members when a competitor comes to town.

Read the full article here. It’s good. (Why the focus on communities all of a sudden? Whatever the reason, I like that it is on so many people’s minds.)

4. Starbucks, design, and the future

John Moore gives a sneak peek at the design of future of Starbucks stores. (kind of cool, but will it work?)

5. The writing on the wall finally gets the attention of Ford execs.

CNN reports that Ford Motor Co., faced with its largest quarterly loss ever, is finally planning to “shift product line, bringing European-made vehicles to North America.” Duh.

The company said it will make big changes to the vehicles it sells domestically – bringing six small cars made in Europe to the North American market.

Ford said that three large truck and sport utility vehicle plants in Wayne, Mich., Louisville, Ky., and Cuautitlan, Mexico would be switched over for the manufacture of small cars. Re-tooling will begin in December, the company said.

In addition to converting the three plants in North America, Ford said it will ramp up production of small utility vehicles at its Kansas City, Mo., assembly plant, including the Ford Escape, Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner and Mariner Hybrid.

Check out Ford’s “new” Euro offerings here. Better late than never, I guess.

6. Back to work already!

Okay, lunch break over. I have to get back to work now. Have a great Wednesday, everyone.

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Where am I going to be today, Tuesday and Wednesday? Houston, TX, that’s where!

(With about a gazillion other “PC” peeps, courtesy of Microsoft.)

Yep, it’s World-Wide Partner Conference time again (WWPC).

But first, I have to tackle a drive to Charlotte, NC, a shuttle ride from long term parking, get through check-in and security, a flight, a cab ride, and a hotel check-in. What could possibly go wrong? I can’t wait to find out.

🙂

Follow my updates here, on the Microsoft Sherpa Blog, and on twitter.

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Fort Lauderdale, here I come!

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Not a lot of time to blog tonight, but tomorrow should be a little less of a time crunch. Hanging out at the Grand Hyatt in downtown San Antonio, just a short walk from the famous Riverwalk. So far so good.
Oh, and I led my team to a very acceptable bronze medal in the Varnex/Cowboy Olympics this evening. (I even set a quick-draw record – which, for a non-Texan, isn’t too shabby.)
The kid’s still got it!

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Heading west to Varnex today.
There will be copious blogging.
End of transmission.

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Welcome to travel week #37. I’m actually in the office today and tomorrow, but getting everything ready for Varnex 2008 v.1 in San Antonio, TX… which is kind of why the blogging has been a little bit light lately. (Sorry, being all corporate and whatnot, making sure my unit hits its numbers and all that.)

I plan to blog from Varnex both here on the BrandBuilder and the Microsoft Sherpa blog, so stay tuned. (Expect at least one blog post here to be about my air travel adventures – as usual.)

And to help things along, I’ve added a little tool to my travel kit:

As much as I love my Canon SLR’s with their GIANT 2.8 lenses, they’re kind of a drag to carry around on business trips, what with the extra bag and whatnot. The G9 is pretty tight for several reasons: 1) 12.1 megapixels. 2) It shoots jpg and RAW. 3) f2.8 lens. (Oh yeah.) 4) Full manual mode, exactly like a pro-level SLR: Manual control of the shutter speed and ISO. 5) Even with all that, it still fits in your pocket.

Boo-yah.

If I have time later today, I will tell you all about my triple-sorry experience with circuit City this weekend. It was so bad, I almost feel bad for them. (If anything, almost everyone there was at least friendly, but man, do they need process improvements.) Stay tuned.

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Ah. Air travel. One of my favorite topics (usually filed under “broken system report”).

So… according to a recent study of air travel satisfaction, the US air travel infrastructure seems to be heading in the wrong direction. While technology, marketing and customer experience design are making giant forward leaps, the airline industry in the US seems to be taking giant steps backwards… or maybe not since a giant step backwards would actually mean comfortable seats, friendly staff, real onboard food/drink service, on-time arrivals, and no one getting bumped. Ever.

The reality, however, is pretty scary, as anyone who flies the friendly skies on a regular basis already knows. (Don’t even get me started about the steel cart of death.)

From MSN.com:

On-time arrivals dropped for the fifth straight year, with more than one-quarter
of all flights late, according to the survey. The rates of passengers bumped
from overbooked flights and bags lost, stolen or damaged also jumped in
2007.

Stolen bags. Hmmm. Yeah. I hope that Homeland Security and the TSA have a backup plan in case the whole baggage handlers as a first line of defense thing doesn’t work out.

Six airlines — Frontier, Northwest, SkyWest, Southwest, United and US
Airways — showed declines in every area in the survey, although Southwest still
had the best on-time arrival mark at 80.1 percent. The Dallas-based carrier also
had the lowest rate of consumer complaints, 0.26 per 100,000 passengers.

Still, the airline has not been immune from problems. It is fighting a
record $10.2 million fine from the Federal Aviation Administration for
continuing to fly dozens of Boeing 737s that hadn’t been inspected for cracks in
their fuselages.

American, Delta and United airlines recently canceled flights to
perform unscheduled inspections of certain aircraft, and US Airways found
problems on some Boeing 757s after a wing part on one of its planes fell off
during a flight.

Wonderful. In retrospect, maybe having to pay $7 for a ham-like-meat sandwich and being forced to deal with passive aggressive flight attendants with questionable hygiene are the least of my worries.

The Airline Quality Rating study, compiled annually since 1991, is based on
Transportation Department statistics for airlines that carry at least 1 percent
of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by
the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and by Wichita
State University. The other airlines in the survey were AirTran, Alaska,
American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, Continental, Jet Blue and Mesa.

Among the study’s conclusions:

– More than one-third of Atlantic Southeast Airlines flights were late, the worst on-time performance in 2007.

– The airlines also bumped passengers more often, at a rate of 4.5 per 10,000 passengers. JetBlue and AirTran were far ahead of their competitors in avoiding bumping passengers from flights, at 0.02 and 0.15 per 10,000 passengers, respectively.

– AirTran had the best baggage handling rate, at 4.06 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. American Eagle ranked last in baggage handling with 13.55 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.

Crazy.


Growing up in France in the 70’s and 80’s, I learned at a pretty early age to discern which European (and non-European) countries had the highest standards of living by experiencing their travel infrastructure – including airlines.

If we are to be a shining beacon to the world, we really can’t afford to allow the quality of our air travel to sink this low. We already don’t have much of a rail system, so it isn’t like we can fall back on Plan B. There are no bullet trains that can get us from Houston to Chicago, from DC to Miami, or from Atlanta to San Francisco.

Some airlines are managing to thrive in this dreadful state of disrepair, as they should. Shame on the airlines that can’t adjust to rising costs and aging aircraft. Yeah, sure, prices may need to go up a bit, but you can offset a 5-10% uplift in ticket prices by giving passengers something in return (and no, I don’t mean sky miles). It’s like everything else. When the conversation drifts to price, then you haven’t done a good job of selling value.

If you want to change the conversation and talk about something other than price, then you’d better have something great to talk about. How about this:

1. First, make sure you have the most impressive safety record in the industry, and TALK ABOUT IT. (If US Air’s wings lose parts during flight, you want to be on the total opposite end of that spectrum.)

2. Hire professional looking/acting staff. You’re in the airline industry, for crying outloud. Bring a little bit of glamour back to your brand experience and make your company’s name synonymous with that hint of luxury. I want to be greeted with smiles at the check-in, at the gate, and onboard the plane. I want to be treated like a valued guest, and not like another ass-in-seat hassle. I don’t want to be berrated by a power-tripping ogre struggling to deal with another 2-3 lousy years left until retirement. Give me smiles and professional looking people. You know, with uniforms that a) fit properly and b) get pressed every once in a while. Give me enthusiasm and manners. If hotels and most companies in the US can do it, surely airlines can as well.

3. In-flight service: Look it up. Hint: Charging $7-$10 for a POS vending machine sandwich is just dumb and beyond gauche. #1: You’re ripping off your own customers, and they will remember it. #2: Food of such insipid quality doesn’t belong on your flights. (Not unless you stow wooden crates and live poultry in the same hold as your passengers.) Treat your passengers well.

4. Scratch overbooking from your MO.

5. Invest in some toiletry kits. That way, when the baggage handlers at one of your twenty+ airports steal a passenger’s Vuitton suitcases, you’ll at least give your angry passenger a) Fresh breath, and b) the notion that while the airport may not care about them, you sure as hell do.

6. Buy aircraft with comfortable seats. (Before buying the damn things, get your senior execs to fly from coast to coast in one of them.)

7. Drop routes that don’t make sense. Better to be small and great than big and crappy.

8. Be insanely nice to your passengers when they exit the plane.

9. Toys or coloring books for kids. Yes, even in the era of Gameboys, iPods and PSPs, the ubiquitos free branded toy goes a long way.

10. I hate to sound like Papa Seth, but make te experience memorable (in a positive way). Just like The Standard Hotel makes a point to make every detail of the guest experience cool and story-worthy, an airline can (and should) as well. Redesign your uniforms. Redesign your aircraft interior. Redesign the entire experience of booking, checking-in, waiting at the gate, boarding the aircraft, flying, landing and exiting the terminal memorable. (It doesn’t need to eat into your profits either. A little bit of forethought doesn’t hurt.) In other words, get your heads out of the numbers for a bit and take a more holistic approach to managing your business/airline.

In other words, build some value.

Stop whining, stop complaining about the price of fuel and the pilots’ unions and overcrowding at most of our country’s airports, and do whatever you have to do to become the best damn airline in the US (and then the world).

If the issue is Wall Street, fire your board, appoint people to it who can put together a rejuvenation plan, and send them to speak to your investors with a kickass proposal they will rally behind. Make them understand that business-as-usual and damage-control won’t cut it in the long-term, and that you have a real plan to get back on track. Not just financially, but from a true market leadership standpoint.

Easier said than done? Sure. Of course. But that’s no reason not to try.

Just for sport, let’s have a show of hands: How many airlines are doing this right now?

1? 2? 3, maybe? Yeah. That’s what I thought.

For shame.

This is not a problem that can be fixed by cutting costs (the equivalent of ancient medicine’s practice of bleeding sick patients). This is a problem that must be fixed through cultural change from within the organization: Airlines that stand for something and deliver on the expectations of their most critical passengers will stand out and do extremely well. Those who are merely content to stay afloat, those who fear Wall Stree and fickle investors, those who have no plan to rebuild their airlines as opposed to slowly bleeding them to death or relying on government bailouts will continue down this ill-fated path.

When I bite into a stale $7 POS sandwich on a crowded flight with dirty floors, mean flight attendants and no chance of making my next connection, all I see is lousy leadership, and it sucks.

This really needs to be fixed.

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The view from Microsoft’s new digs in Bellevue, WA (yeah, that’s Seattle across the water).

Sorry about the lack of posts this past week. I was traveling and attending meetings and whatnot.

Just to give you a quick recap, here are some of the cool things I saw and did while in Seattle:

1) I took a tour of Microsoft’s concept House of The Future. (Think: “Open the Pod Bay door, Hal” meets Minority Report, but in a very, VERY good way.)

2) I participated in a pretty kickass simulation in Microsoft’s “Information Worker Of The Future” concept office. (Think: CTU meets Minority Report meets your office, only in a very, VERY, VERY good way.) Wow. To see where software is going and how well it will integrate with every task it touches was IMPRESSIVE. (Yes, I am a geek.)

3) I accidentally had dinner at the best French Restaurant in the US (and I know what I’m talking about). I won’t tell you what it’s called, however. You’ll have to guess or find it yourselves. Let me just say this: It’s almost on the water, the operators are French (not Canadian), it isn’t far from the original Starbucks store,and they have cassoulet on their menu. Nuff said.

4) I had a latte (3 raw sugars, thank you) at the very first Starbucks. (It wasn’t the first time, but I always make it a point to go there when I visit Seattle now.)

5) I stopped by the Athenian restaurant for a very necessary oyster shooter. (Again, a pilgrimage.)

6) I bought some incredible hand-made stuff from Raven’s Nest – great place to go Xmas shopping for the people on your list who either a) like esoteric stuff, b) already have everything, or c) both. (I mean come on: Who hasn’t dreamed of having a genuine hand-carved cedar orca/eagle totem in their office?)

7) I played pool on the 24th floor of Microsoft’s new digs in Bellevue – which, by the way, has such a monumental view of Seattle that I had a tough time dragging myself back into meetings. The above photo is only about 1/20th of the whole panorama and doesn’t even do that little portion justice. Interesting note: Some of my coworkers may now believe that I am some kind of pool shark after watching me accidentally play two perfect games in a row.

8) I drove a PT Cruiser all over town for three days (convertible and vanilla-colored) and didn’t get laughed at once. Interesting note: You can fit 3 people and 4 very large suitcases in that thing. You will use up every available square millimeter, but it can be done.)


9) I flew across the US twice without a single delay, without a single problem, and without a single frown or hint of attitude from any flight attendants. Delta/Song/Alaska Airlines once again – without blowing me away or anything – did an awesome job through and through. Even the TSA teams in their terminals were friendly and courteous. Thumbs up.

10) I ate a bad raw scallop. Or raw oyster… or raw something. I survived, but let’s just say salmonella, e-coli and their buddies put up a pretty decent fight for a couple of hours. Bleh.

Anyhoo. It’s good to be back.

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above: the kind of gorgeous stuff you see from 35,000 feet, by the way

Just last week, I was lamenting on the sorry state of airlines in general and the effect poor service has on the way people treat each other. (If you missed it, take a few minutes to check it out.) Well, this week, I have to say that the hypothetical “airline that does it right does indeed exist.

I’m sure there are more than one, but so far, this is my first 100% pleasant experience with an airline I’ve had since 1991, when I last flew British Caledonian from the US to Europe. The airline in question is Alaska Airlines (a Delta Airlines partner), with whom I flew from San Francisco to Seattle, and then from Seattle to Atlanta. What did they do right? Everything:

– Boarded the flight intelligently (not front to back): Check.
– Left on time: Check.
– Pleasant, professional, and elegant flight attendants: Check.
– Making passengers feel at home and comfortable: Check.
– Seat design intended for normal human beings: Check (Yay to the old Boeing 737-700!).
– Pilot pointing out sweet landmarks: Check.
– Bringing glamour back to air travel by offering grown-up drinks in a classy way during flight: Check.
– Friendly and prompt personal attention from the cabin crew: Check.
– Landing on time: Check.
– Friendly farewells from the pilot and crew for passengers exiting the plane: Check.
– Luggage arriving at final destination: Check.
– Passengers being friendly, happy, and conversational upon arrival as a result of the way they were treated by Alaskan Airlines employees: Check.

People bumping into each other and not apologizing: Zero.

Nuff said.

So far, Alaska Airlines is hands-down the best airline I have flown with in the US since Y2K. The rest of the Delta organization could learn a thing or two from their Northwestern house brand.


More great brand experiences from my left coast trip:

above: Tea time @ The Slanted Door


The Slanted Door restaurant (SF):
This is the kind of restaurant that makes me realize how not so fresh food actually is in most fancy-shmancy restaurants that overcharge and under-deliver across the US. Everything about that busy, trendy, impeccably designed restaurant made me want to recommend it to friends – and more importantly – go back next time I am in San Francisco. The setting itself (right on the water) is enough of a story – as is the name – but the dining experience tops it all. Every dish looks and tastes like a work of art while managing to be gloriously simple. Genius. Bonus: The waiters actually had fun with the whole Flat Stanley thing we had going on, which earns them good tips forever.

above: The Bay Bridge @ night


San Francisco’s Bay Bridge (SF):
$4 buy you a pretty spectacular way to enter San Fran after dark. Absolutely magnificent. This is the kind of experience you wish your friends or loved ones could be there to share with you. (Yes, more cities should flirt with the idea that the way you enter a municipality sets the stage for the entire experience.) In this respect, cities are no different from buildings, meals, concept stores, luxury hotels, movies, and art museums. Smart thinking. Bonus: The toll attendant was super friendly.

above: b.a.r.t. station underneath San Francisco’s downtown


B.A.R.T. (SF):
San Francisco’s rail transit system. Nothing spectacular, but well run, relatively clean, inexpensive, and supremely practical. Good stuff. I would gladly ride this system into work every day, which is more than I can say for most US transit systems. Strangely enough, people riding b.a.r.t. were cordial, and I even saw folks giving up their seats, proving that chivalry isn’t quite dead yet. Once again, a pleasant environment breeds pleasant behavior. It never fails. Perhaps the most intriguing part of riding b.a.r.t. is how encapsulates the diverse, international community that resides in the Bay area. I was one of only four caucasian passengers in my completely packed car. The rest of the passengers hailed from all over the world: China, India, Korea, Iran, Japan, Philippines, Armenia, Africa, Vietnam, Pakistan… It was a very unique experience for a white man in America to suddenly feel like such an insignificant minority. Believe it or not, it was a beautiful experience. And pretty surreal. Very Blade Runner, except without the rain, the flying cars, and those pesky replicants.

Thrifty, Hertz & Enterprise: $18 per day to rent a compact car from Thrifty @ SeaTac. Sure, it’s a POS Ford whatever, but $18 per day? I can’t touch that kind of rate in any other first tier city in the US. Not even close. And the agents we worked with were top notch. Definitely a fun experience I intend to repeat next time I fly into LAX, SFO or SeaTac – although with a slightly better car this time. (Oh well, reducing our carbon footprint for 24hrs. earns us style points too – and those little Ford engines have more pickup than you’d think.) The process was easy, pleasant, and fast. Obviously, car rental companies seem to have figured out how to do things right – at least on the West Coast. Very nice. Story-worthiness: The rental agents’ unique personalities and quirks, and Tokyo-Drifting with a Ford Focus on one of the I5’s entrance ramps, for starters.

above: Seattle’s Space Needle through the “weather” – shot from I5.


Seattle:
Cool city. No traffic issues. Complex interstate setup near downtown, but well designed nonetheless. Friendly people. Great food. Made me want to move there in spite of the weather in about twenty minutes flat. You can really sense that Seattle is a frontier town, on the edge of civilization in many ways, but it is also has an unusually quaint vibe that makes you instantly feel like you’re home. Caveat: Buying a cup of java from the very first Starbucks store is pretty cool, but it’s a little disappointing to order a Latte and end up with a cup of straight coffee. (Doh.) But you know what? Everyone was so friendly, it didn’t really matter. I added my own cream, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Enough stories in one day already to fill many a dinner conversation.

above: an unpronounceable Catalan-inspired dish of clams, ham, rice, peppers and all sorts of good stuff on Pike, which followed this.


Pike Place fish market (SEA):
The freshest seafood I’ve seen and tasted in the US so far. (Yep, even better than the stuff in NYC.) Shopping there (what with the fish throwing and the yelling and all) is a memorable and fun experience. Combine that with some of the freshest produce I’ve ever seen at an open air market, and you have yourself a recipe for scrumptiousness. (The local eateries most definitely benefit from this, which makes me salivate just thinking about my next visit.) When people are passionate about their job – whether it’s selling the freshest food or preparing it, it shows. (Today’s 5-second business lesson: Quality doesn’t happen by accident.) As many stories as there are merchants, obviously. Good stuff.

* * *

With so many broken brands about, it is nice to string so many pleasant (dare I say remarkable) experiences together in just a few short days. Seeing the positive effect these experiences have had on me and others around me, I can absolutely tell you with one hundred percent certainty that smiles breed smiles, enthusiasm is infectious, and positive interactions are contagious.

If your business is suffering or stalling and you can’t figure out how to get it jump-started, begin with your human touchpoints: Start with enthusiasm and good-will towards customers, and… slowly, methodically, empathically work your way backwards. It most certainly worked with every business I mentioned in this post.

At the very least, a friendly, helpful, enthusiastic human touchpoint can make up for an monster amount of otherwise business-killing problems.

At least for a while.

Beyond that, anything your business does to help customers take stories home with them (especially those they will tell for the rest of their lives) is absolutely pure 100% certified brand-building gold. More on that topic in weeks to come, I’m sure.

Here’s to a brand new week – which is going to be crazy-busy for me – but what else is new.

Have a great Monday, everyone. 😉

all photos by me.

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The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other. The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles and care for our comfort and experience. Over time, we start emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another.

Thus, an industry (in this case the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, can in effect change the very mechanics of human interactions.

Cause and effect –

It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve had the joy of flying from coast to coast via the friendly skies, and I wasn’t exactly complaining about it. Still, I kind of dig the left coast, so whenever work or pleasure give me an opportunity to check out the Pacific Ocean from our lovely shores, I usually jump at the chance.

So here I am, in San Jose/Fremont/San Francisco (yes, all at once – or something like that) after a relatively uneventful three-airport hop-along that started at 4:00am Monday morning in Greenville, SC, and ended on time (surpisingly) in in sunny San Jose, CA.

That’s right: On time.

I experienced exactly zero delays. Sure, the planes were ridiculously full, but I guess that’s good so I can’t complain about that.

And we didn’t crash, which is always nice too.

All in all, I have to say that Delta Airlines – which I’ve had a tolerate-hate relationship with for years now – did better than I expected. They even kept me hydrated and snacked (“fed” would be pushing the semantics) throughout my impossibly uncomfortable flight over these beautiful United States.

And that is where I have to hit on a cliche of air travel, but dammit, would it hurt commercial aeroplane designers (yes, I’ve decided to spell it the British way) to develop seats actually DESIGNED FOR HUMAN BEINGS? Let’s go through this again: I am 6′. I weigh 165lbs. Compared to most American men I share a pressurized cabin with, I am nowhere near “big.” Yet, my seats today were so small and caved-in that I couldn’t find a comfortable position for even ten minutes. (My neck is killing me.)

And this comes from a guy who spends upwards of 3 hours on a time-trial bicycle, mind you.

Aside from the lack of comfort (or should I say – complete victory of discomfort-inspired design), there is the issue of space management: It’s bad enough that seats are designed to keep you awake for the entire trip and ensure weeks of headaches and neck pain, but they’re also too narrow and close together. It is physically impossible to do anything with your elbows except a) shove them violently into your neighbors’ skulls in a snarling fit of air rage, of b) hunker down and curl your spine into a crooked little ball so that your elbows may rest peacefully on your thighs.

For five f#$%ing hours. Great.

“Would you like crackers or peanuts, sir?”

Ungh… As soon… as… I… uncurl myself…

But that’s nothing new. The comfortable coach seats of the Super Caravelles are a thing of the past, so there is really no point in dwelling on the instruments of torture designed to keep us “safely” secured during flight while maximizing passenger volume per flight – which, after all, is all that matters: Get as many of us sorry saps on a plane as inhumanly possible.

Trust me, if airlines could find a way to stack us on top of each other to double a plane’s capacity, they would. (Hey, if that meant having a cot instead of a seat, I’m all for it. Strap me in!)

No, what’s new is the apathy I ran into today. It was kind of a numbness to things which, as someone who grew up in a big crowded city, I find a bit odd. Typically, a person reacts in some way to unpleasantness, like getting bumped by someone on the street for example… but I find that human behavior in airports now no longer answers to the same set of rules that we normally live by out here in the real world.

Next time you’re in an airport (or on a plane,) try this little Fight Club-ish experiment: Bump into somebody. Bump into them hard. Hard enough to knock them forward or back or sideways. Bump into them so they have to take a step to keep themselves from falling – and keep going. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t apologize. Just go about your business as if the person you bumped into didn’t exist.

But have someone watch their reaction for you.

Bad mojo, and the tragic fate of manners –

What I found today is that in an airport or on a plane, people will completely ignore one another even if they bump into each other, kind of like the way cows ignore each other while they are grazing. I also never noticed how much people in airports and on aeroplanes (British spelling again) bump into other people. It’s insane. Traveling has officially become a full contact sport.

There’s the guy whose backpack collides with your shoulder as he tries to squeeze by during the boarding process (for whatever reason since his seat is already assigned and we aren’t leaving until everyone is on board – so what’s the rush?). There’s the guy who finds a way to kick you in the toes while walking up the aisle to go take a leak – even though your foot is safely tucked in under the seat in front of you. (How he manages to do this, I have no earthly idea. Retractable evil clown shoes is all I can come up with.) There’s the woman whose out-of-control waddling knocks your arm off your seat’s armrest just as you were finally drifting off to sleep. And then there’s the murderous snack cart of doom, with its blunt edges and 1500 pounds of hammered steel fury cold-heartedly coming down the aisle. Yeah. Getting smacked in the elbow by surprise with this infernal bone-crushing instrument of Hades is always the highlight of any cross-country flight.

But seriously: Put us (Homo-Sapiens) anywhere near an airport, and we start to bump into each other like Vista screensaver bubbles. Either – as a species – our peripheral vision is getting worse (in which case we need to get the human genome project working on that, stat!) or we’re turning into bumbling morons who can’t even stand up anymore without f%&#ing that up too. Who knows. It might be the next logical step in our idiocratic de-evolution.

What I do know is this: When I was but a wee little French boy, I was taught something called “manners.” Don’t ask me to explain what manners are. It’s too complicated… But they have something to do with being polite and considerate of others whenever possible. Manners involve doing things like saying “please” and “thank you.” They involve – at least in the Western world – not burping in the company of others, not being ruthlessly flatulent (especially in a car or an aeroplane), and not saying bad words like f%*k or s&!t around your grandparents unless they say them first. Manners are what keep you from chewing with your mouth open or cutting in line at the movie theater, or treating people like they are cattle.

Manners, as far as I remember (and I am not that old) also involve apologizing when you bump into someone. Here’s an example:

*Bump* *Eye contact.* *Embarrassed expression on your face* “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you.” *compassionate and apologetic smile* *exit*

That’s right: When you bump into someone, the civilized thing to do is to make eye contact, give the offended party a sad facial expression, and verbally apologize. Flatly, even, if need be.

You know that apathy I mentioned earlier? It apparently applies to manners as well: Not only do people seem to no longer try not to bump into each other in the first place, but they also don’t seem to give a flying monkey’s arse about apologizing when they do. They simply go on with their bumbling self-absorbed iPod-adorned biz as if the bump hadn’t happened at all.

At the mall, in the street, at work, people apologize to each other when they accidentally collide. Heck, they do all sorts of crazy things to avoid collisions in the first place. But in airports or at 35,000 feet, their behavior changes. Which brings me to this conclusion: If people’s behavior is impacted by their environment, what is it about our nation’s airports and air travel experience that makes so many of folks act like selfish apathetic oafs?

Cause and effect: Policies of dehumanization and the downward spiral of human interactions –

Earlier, I used bovine imagery to describe certain people. That was not an accident. Treat people like cattle, and sooner or later, they will start acting like cattle. Treat people like a commodity, and sooner or later, they start treating each other like a commodity. That’s just science.

The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other: The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles, and care for our comfort and experience. At some point, we started emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another to the point of being patently apathetic and rude… And we let it happen.

Thus, through a series of deliberate decisions regarding simple business functions like HR and customer service, an industry (in this case, the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, in effect began to change the very mechanics of human interactions.

The Silver Lining and a bit of common sense –

That’s scary and sad… but it’s also a little bit exciting because it means that the opposite can also be true: On the flip side, an industry (or a brand, if influential enough) can create an atmosphere of good will which will be contagious in the very same way.

An airline with friendly staff, comfortable seats, a painless back-to-front boarding process (come on people, is that so hard to figure out?!), in-flight snacks that don’t make us feel like we’re being nickeled-and-dimed, and maybe even flight attendants who don’t look like Wal-Mart greeters, don’t act like we spat in their ham sandwich, and (one can dream) actually treat passengers like valued customers instead of a pain in their arses might balance things out and restore civilized behavior in and around airports. Maybe.

An airline like that might even help rescue the entire industry by setting a shining example for everyone, and setting a new – achievable – set of standards.

Am I dreaming? Am I naive? Don’t even go there. Here’s my take on this: A smile doesn’t cost a thing.

Not

one

red

cent.

The lack of smiles across the majority of an organization, however, can cost you the death of a brand – at the very least.

It isn’t rocket science.

A smile is never a detail.

The value of vision, the role of standards, and what we should really worry about –

Fifteen years ago, I used to fly Sabena, Delta, PanAm, and British Caledonian between the US and Europe. Back then, flight attendants were good looking, friendly, professional, proud of their airlines and their occupation, and always willing to help passengers have a comfortable (if not pleasant) experience. Don’t even try to call me shallow for mentioning good looking as an element of my list. Airlines, just like the military once had standards which make sense in light of what they are trying to accomplish: While the military once had high standards in regards to physical fitness, the airlines had high standards in terms of passenger experience. Both made sense then, and still do now. Yet, here we are.

I guess this is what happens when you allow your standards as a brand, as an organization, as the practical execution of someone’s vision, to go down the drain. Where flight attendants were once attractive, energetic, friendly, pleasant people, they now tend to be aging, bitter-acting, unpleasant air scrooges with a chip on their shoulder and a fading ability to smile.

Where air travel was once a glamorous, exciting, relatively painless experience, it has now become the absolute worst way to travel in the US. Taking the bus is more fun than flying, and that’s saying something because bus systems in this country aren’t exactly great.

But beyond all that, my saddest observation from this dull, uncomfortable, disappointing day of unpleasantness wasn’t the fact that the flight attendants were mildly ill-mannered old ladies with painted-on eyebrows and mismatched uniforms in need of a good pressing. It wasn’t the fact that the seats were three sizes too small. It wasn’t even even the fact that I got scraped, bumped, kicked and shoved without even the hint of an apology or acknowledgment from any of the offending parties. No, it was something infinitely more subtle than that – but much scarier in light of all of this, because it speaks to the depth of apathy that we are now reaching as an airport-dwelling society: As we were flying over some of the most breathtaking deserts and canyons that went on for miles and miles and miles – and I am talking National Geographic cover-worthy landscapes here; absolutely stunning stuff – no one on the plane seemed to care. People just sat there in their uncomfortable seats, eyes glued to their laptop screens or the latest exciting issue of Sky Mall or just staring blankly into space while these gorgeous landscapes glided by. I walked up and down the plane, looking for a better vantage point since I had an aisle seat, and watched as traveler after traveler, curious about what I was looking at through their portholes, glanced down at the gorgeous mosaic of colors and textures carved out by millions of years of planetary evolution… and looked away, bored and unimpressed.

That level of apathy and emotional disconnect surprised me… and made me a little sad.

It’s one thing for people to stop being cordial and compassionate towards each other. But when people start not caring about powerful, genuine beauty when it is right there in front of them, then I think there’s reason to worry.

We’re losing something here. Something we should fight a little harder to hold on to because we can’t afford for it to slip away.

What does any of this have to do with brands? I’ll tell you:

Brands do not reflect cultures; they affect them.

As brand stewards, give some thought to the impact that your brand (from a personal microbrand to a global megabrand) has had on people in the past, what impact it has on people now, and what impact you want it to have on people for decades to come. Is your brand contributing to a broken system and a downward spiral of apathy, or to an improvement in people’s quality of life?

This line of thinking may not seem as black and red as your P&L report, but it is well worth thinking about because it is at the core of everything your brand stands for.

And if your brand stands for nothing, it is nothing more than a complete waste of space.

So at the very least, try to instill in your employees, clients, co-workers, and customers a sense that smiles are contagious. That they are good for business in the same way that they are good for the soul. That without genuine human interactions, without emotional engagement between you, your brand, and your audience, you have failed not only as a brand steward, but also as a human being, which is a whole lot of failure.

In short, make us care – by showing us you do.

Smile. Say thank you. Say please. Say sorry. Chew with your mouth closed. Open the door for ladies. Give up your seat on a crowded bus. And perhaps most important of all, don’t squeeze out a toxic cloud of digested chili cheese taco in a crowded place without at least apologizing for your lack of manners.

It’s the little things, after all.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 😉

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