Over the 12 days of Christmas, my husband and I undertook a crazy 12 flight trip between Europe and the USA. Our travels spanned 3 airlines, 10 time zones and 7 international airports. For some, this might sound like a horrendous way to spend their holiday time, but for an airmiles addict, it was fantastic fun, and a fascinating insight into the way airlines and their most loyal customers behave.
In order to reap the numerous benefits of airline loyalty schemes (exclusive lounge access, champagne, priority airport security & boarding, extra luggage allowance, etc.), you need to collect status. The more you fly, the higher you move up the airline loyalty ranking (and the more generous the benefits you receive.) Once the top tier has been reached, airlines rely on customers’ eagerness to enjoy the status benefits, as well as reticence to loose the benefits, should they not fly enough to maintain their status. For some, the status is achieved through frequent flying for work. For others, status is achieved through strategically planned leisure travel, hence the 12 flight trip over Christmas in my case.
Being able to compare the “hard products” (the airline’s lounge, the aircraft, seating) and the “soft product” (food, drink, customer service) was particularly interesting. Given that we faced a few disruptions in both Europe & the USA due to storms and bad weather, the service recovery element and ultimately helping us get to our next destination as soon as possible was very variable. At some destinations, it was easy and seamless to get sorted, whilst at other, we faced worrisome and complicated processes to make our connections. Thumbs up to the US airports for being much better at communicating, managing change and assisting passengers. It felt less stressful and more managed.
In terms of soft skills of the crew, European airlines definitely have the edge, perhaps due to the fact that as a European, it is easy for the crew to make a connection with me. The empathy seemed more engaging and natural, versus the US airline crews’ focus on task management, with much less personalisation.
In terms of hard product, I was also somewhat surprised that business class products sometimes beat first class products – better seats, more comfortable bedding, larger TV screens to watch in flight. As I don’t usually fly so many types of aircraft and airline one after another, it’s a comparison that I had really noticed in the past, and it made me reflect on the typical behaviour of any frequent flyer.
Familiarity with an airport, an aircraft and an airline is really important for most frequent flyers. A sense of confidence in what to expect, and how to get problems sorted should they arise is just as important as a great loyalty scheme. It’s not just about the great champagne and fluffy pillows, it about the way the people interact with customers, the reliability of the airline and the occasional personal touches that make the customer feel valued. Even the most loyal customers may feel genuinely disgruntled when after many great experiences they have one really bad experience.
Like most things in life, customers like their routine, and thus don’t willingly switch to alternative providers. But with an increasing number of airlines offering ever more trans-Atlantic flights to ever-more destinations, it’s a good time for airlines to check in on their experience and review how they measure and validate this with their customers.
My personal learnings for 12 flights over this festive period? Am I cured from my airmiles obsession? Absolutely not, I still intend to fly as often as I can. But what I have learned is that blind loyalty is not necessarily the best option. Going forward, I will proactively be varying the airlines and aircraft I use to maximise my personal experience, and it will include airlines that I previously might not have thought to fly. By having an intense burst of flying, I’ve learned that there is choice available to me which allows me to earn my airmiles, but offering the experience best suited to my needs.
In a similar way, customer behaviours across most industries is changing, loyalty is evolving, and as customer experience leaders, we need to pause and reflect on what that might mean for our customers. Do we truly understand what matters to our customers? Do we understand the real loyalty and dissatisfaction levers? My biggest learning from my 12 flight trip was that it’s time to validate again with customers, making sure that I am still fully in tune with my own customer’s changing needs and desires.