Remember my interview with Rob Siefker, the head of customer service at Zappos? Sure you do. How could you not click on a headline like If Zappos ran an airline?
Interesting Q&A. But just as interesting to me was the discussion, in which some of you wondered how I would run an airline.
The short answer: I would never, ever run an airline.
I have nothing but the utmost respect for people who get involved in the business. It’s difficult, competitive and often thankless. Plus, it’s a money-losing proposition. As Richard Branson once said, “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline.”
But if you are going to be in the business, you should do it right. And too many airlines are not doing it right. If I had to run an air carrier — and at the risk of repeating myself, let me say that I wouldn’t even if you dangled a big paycheck in front of my face — I might do a few things differently.
As some commenters correctly guessed, I would go with a one-class configuration that offers a humane amount of legroom and width for everyone — not just the ones that can afford to pay for an upgrade or have the time to participate in a loyalty program. No one should be punished for trying to find a deal. And no one deserves to suffer on a flight.
No loyalty program?
Many readers speculated that I would eliminate all loyalty programs. Not true. Loyalty is good when it’s a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship. I prefer simpler programs that offer an award ticket in exchange for buying a certain number of tickets over time. These vouchers would not expire, in a perfect world. The accountants would try to talk me out of that. But it’s my airline!
Ticket changes, fare differentials and other junk fees
If someone was crazy enough to hand me the reins of an airline, I would streamline the fee structure and do away with the nonsense junk charges we have today. No more $500 ticket change fees or funny airline math. My airline would earn money the old-fashioned way: By flying people from point “A” to point “B.”
Rather than incentivizing my flight crew to sell more, I would reward them for serving more. Flight attendants who make their passengers feel welcome and enhance the in-flight experience would be given the bonuses, raises and promotions. Maybe I would move my training facility to Singapore, where they still remember how service is supposed to be done. I would never, ever mistreat my own passengers on longer flights by making them pay extra for basic necessities like food or drink. It’s just not civilized.
Delays and cancellations
In the unlikely event one of my flights is delayed, I would urge my team members to do more than follow the law. I’d urge them to follow their conscience. Don’t leave passengers to sleep on the floor during a weather delay. Pay for their hotels. If you have to cancel a flight, practice the old rule of reciprocity and endorse the ticket to an airline that can fly to their destination. Go above and beyond what you must, not because it’s the profitable thing to do — but because it’s the right thing to do.
Would Elliott Air go bankrupt within weeks? Maybe, maybe not.
I think consumers will reward an ethical company with their business. Just look at JetBlue, which for many years set itself apart by doing what every other airline used to do before deregulation. It offered a generous amount of legroom, friendly service and reasonable fares. Then its shareholders got greedy and turned JetBlue into the monstrosity it is today, which is trying to compete with the big airlines for the unenviable title of “Most Hated Airline.”
There has to be a better way.
Maybe you love those lie-flat first class seats, which come to you at the cost of personal space in the back of the plane. Maybe you’re a fan of those addictive, anti-consumer loyalty programs that separate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” Maybe you love the junk fees and the onerous contracts of carriage and the horrible service levels.
But even the most ardent airline apologist has to agree with me on this: There has to be a better way.