The loyalty quandary faced by airlines

I recently undertook one of my crazy “fly-around-everywhere” weekends, which took hubbie and me to six countries on ten planes with four airlines. You might think I’m crazy to spend precious leisure time on flights and in airports (on that, I couldn’t possibly comment), but from a CX (customer experience) perspective, there’s a lot of observations and learnings to be had.

As a leisure traveller travelling in premium class, I get to see the best and the worst of airlines and airport lounges. As I write this blog, I’m sat in my favourite airline lounge, Cathay Pacific First Class lounge at Heathrow Airport. It’s beautifully designed, calm and welcoming with great food. As ever, the most important part is to be recognised by the staff when I arrive. warm smiles, asking about my trips and topping up my champagne unprompted – utterly divine! But it doesn’t always feel this good. I fly a lot with another major carrier and it’s evident that there’s some service and product challenges. That weekend entailed two 12 hour flights in first class, the airline’s top premium offering.

Whilst the airline’s premium lounge is a luxury experience, being thrown back into the overcrowded melée to reach the departure gate, queue along the airbridge and facing unhelpful and surly ground staff feels less divine. Add to that food that could pass for economy range supermarket microwave meals, running out of basic premium products (amenity kits onboard, pyjamas, food and decent champagne), and a very expensive product starts to look distinctly tatty, and not what you’d expect for a premium offering.

“First world problems”, I hear you cry, but digging a little deeper, the recent experience raised a point about a real challenge faced by all businesses – how to demonstrate an appreciation of the customer loyalty, or as I like to call it, the loyalty quandary.

On some flights, as a top tier loyalty card holder, I was greeted personally, offered a complimentary coffee or newspaper. On some flights, even sat in seat 1A, the cabin manager was clearly more interested in chatting with co-workers than serving the small number of customers in their charge. On other flights, crew were genuinely apologetic and creative about the gaps in the product offering, making light of running out of food or toiletries. When you do ten flights in three days, you cannot help but compare the service experience, and how it makes you feel. Whether everything runs like clockwork, or disaster strikes and business continuity needs to kick in, how you treat your loyal customers really matters. The travel industry shows us the best, and worst of how to do this.

The loyalty quandary from a customer / traveller perspective focuses most on how you value the customer in the moment, compared with historically during their tenure as a customer. How the customer feels in the here and now heavily influences how they perceive the relationship in the longer term. Inconsistency in the experience is guaranteed to erode the loyalty, which after all is usually based on a customer’s decision to continue purchasing the product you offer. Putting to one side the risk of competitor innovation or evolving customer needs, a customer’s decision to chose you over other companies is usually based on multiple factors. Over time, if you do the right things, consistently and to a high standard, the customer’s decision on choosing you is reinforced, creating habit and loyalty. If you are paying attention to these factors, you can nurture that loyalty.

So where, in my opinion do airlines get this wrong? Too much of how the airline industry treats customers is inconsistent – you have to pay for luggage, even if it’s 100g over weight, unless the airline decided the cabin is too full and offers “free” checked bags. If a customer shows up 1 minute late for a flight, they loose everything, whereas airlines can and do expect customers to face multiple delays without anything other than a shrug of shoulders. Too many airlines design their processes around the handful of bad eggs who try to game the system, rather than the vast majority of decent customers – so a small typo in your name when buying a ticket usually means you have to pay for a whole new ticket. Not great for a customer, but even worse for a loyal customer. Despite airlines offering complex loyalty schemes to reward and nurture their frequent flyers, these schemes are often no longer fit for purpose.

Loyalty schemes for most airlines were set up as a snare for corporate customers, locking in their users by giving them premium perks. Business has moved on, relying on simple online travel agents, cheaper prices and a greater choice of airlines. Businesses chose an airline based more on destination and cost these days, leaving the loyalty schemes lacking. With the growth of regular leisure travellers, paying out of their own pocket for premium travel, there’s a need to shift the way loyalty is rewarded. It needs to be more human and relevant, and more consistent in delivery.

So addressing the loyalty quandary for travellers means that airlines should do what they commit to more often. They should consider the human element of travel, and be more accommodating – even frequent flyers rarely fly every day. If airlines want their loyal customers to focus less on getting more from the airline and become more like advocates, the whole approach to loyalty needs to be revisited from the bottom up.

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