16 NOV 2017: Why do most airlines do things the way they do? Well, simply stated, because that’s the way they’ve always done them! Take for instance last week’s big announcement by British Airways that it is planning to plow hundreds of millions of pounds over the coming years into improving the lot of their passengers and investors.  

They will retire their ageing 747 fleet by 2024 and replace it with new more fuel-efficient aircraft types like the A350 and B787 which will come with new, upgraded IFE systems. By next year BA will finally start making inflight Wi-Fi available – they claim they’d been waiting for the technology “to progress” before taking this step.

They will also be upgrading business class lounges, putting economy food back where they’d taken it away on some long haul flights and adding more airport automation and … on and yawn.

A lot of these, dare we say, less than ‘wow’ initiatives, will be spearheaded by one Carolina Martinoli, who was recently appointed as director of ‘Brand and Customer Experience’ at BA. Where did she come from? Surely some kind of ‘out of the box’ ultra creative environment like an Apple or Amazon - somewhere that’s the antithesis of BA’s imperial roots?

Well not exactly; she previously worked at Spain’s Telefónica, the 346-million customer telecommunications giant. She then spent six years as marketing director at Iberia. That’s the same Iberia that ‘merged’ with BA in 2011, has limped along since and has never been known for anything other than service mediocrity - at best.

My stand out - as opposed to ‘outstanding’ - memory of Iberia’s service was having the senior flight attendant sleep across the economy row right behind me for almost the entire trip from Madrid to JFK. When I complained to his colleagues that they should maybe wake him as, apart from anything else his snoring was extremely loud and irritating, I was firmly but politely told, in a whisper no less, that they were letting him sleep because he was “very tired.”

But back to Ms Martinoli. I don’t know her and I am sure she’s very competent or she wouldn’t have been hired for such a big job. That said, if BA really wants to get closer in reality to the self anointed ‘World’s Favorite Airline’ status they once claimed, then the message that such an old school hire sends to the front line troops has got to be less than invigorating.

Oh yes, the front line troops. Remember them? In the airline business, no single employee group spends more face time with customers than cabin crews. If you believe, as I do, that ‘your people are your product’, then these are the folks (as in my Iberian episode) that have the unique ability to make or break it for you. Spanking new airplanes, fancy seats, great IFE and/or haute cuisine can all be for naught if the person delivering it doesn’t do a great job.

BA has around 15,000 cabin crew members and yet, other than one fleeting mention of “improved training” or some such, the great new future plan was entirely focused on pleasing customers and investors. If however, they have the inclination and the cash, the same aircraft and hardware can be acquired by just about any airline: The only thing that truly differentiates one from the other is the crew’s ability to consistently deliver a genuine caring attitude and unscripted warmth.

Attitude is not something you train it’s something you hire. I recall interviewing a young woman for a customer service role: She must have said a dozen times how good she was with people and how nothing could ever faze her. She was immaculately turned out and had probably spent the morning at the hairdresser. Everything was going swimmingly until I said, “I’m sorry but it might have been a good idea if you’d taken some trouble with your appearance when coming to an interview.” Boom! She totally lost it, declared she’d never been so insulted and stormed out of the room. “Next!”

Some might think this was dirty pool but it’s better to find out up front than when the first real-life customer they run into says or does something much worse!

And, when your people screw up, it’s an unfortunate reality that every customer with a phone also has a camera, so you can be sure that in a heartbeat it’s going to be all over social media, network TV, plus Uncle Tom CNN and all.

Maybe you want to ask United Airlines about that one!




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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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