Remembering the so-called “Golden Age of Flight,” it’s easy to consider how airlines have declined from the customer service pioneered at the dawn of commercial flight in the 1950s and ‘60s. As incidents of passenger maltreatment and lost baggage make headlines, the airline industry continues to get flack for having some of the worst customer service in the world. In the public consciousness, it seems that the days of quaint formality and legroom have been replaced by inhospitable employees working for an airline whose only concern for their customers is the ticket price.
What Happened to the Golden Age of Flight?
The Golden Age of Flight disappeared when jumping oil prices and stagflation of the 1970s propelled the American government to deregulate the commercial aviation industry, according to Aviation Week. Deregulation allowed airlines to increase competition and decrease fares that otherwise would have skyrocketed with the cost of fuel and priced out already high-paying customers. Once the cost of a plane ticket was something the masses could afford, the luxuries common to sky travel were limited to first class to accommodate larger passenger loads.
Bad PR Not Helping
Though they still remain a constant worry, major accidents, terrorism and hijacking have all decreased steadily since the mid-century due to higher security and innovations. Airlines mainly deal with catastrophes of another sort: public relations. From the infamous story of a passenger Dr. Dao being dragged off a flight to several cases of maltreatment of passenger pets, airlines like United are frequently in the news for horrific treatment of passengers.
In fact, the results of a March 2017 survey indicate customers’ resentment of the transportation they are often forced to utilize. Founder of the American Customer Service Index, Claes Fornell, reaffirmed that “[c]ustomer satisfaction has never appeared to be a goal for airlines.”
As the divide between nostalgic customer expectations and present-day service grows, what can airlines do to appeal to their passengers’ sense of rightness and avoid the customer service critics of the internet? The answers may come from the first commercial flights that are so well remembered.
When the employees of American Airlines took an employee satisfaction survey for the first time in 10 years, the results were not promising. Fewer than half reported that they had “the flexibility to meet the needs of our customers who fly American,” while only 41% believed their management took “the right decisions that take care of customers.”
Employers can do several things to empower their employees and make them feel valued. Listening to their feedback and giving them the freedom to make decisions in their work encourages engagement and self-improvement to be more successful. Airlines can inspire their employees to be more passionate about their jobs and therefore seek to do better by their passengers, simply by believing in them to carry the brand. By excelling in customer service in the first place, airlines can prevent online criticism that will draw negative attention.
Build an Online Reputation Based on “Golden Age” Values
Although the Golden Age of Flight has passed, the Golden Age of PR has come. As more people use the internet and social media to make consumer decisions, it is vital to be in control of that online reputation. It was a national outrage that, even after the initial abuse of Dr. Dao, the CEO of United failed to respond in a manner that made his customer feel valued—and the world watched it happen on the internet. During times of disaster, whether from serious threats or poorly-handled situations, reacting with empathy and full understanding is vital. Apologies and problem-solving should come first, and defense, last.
In addition to handling the missteps, airlines can also leverage social listening to amplify positive messages regarding their brands. If a consumer posts a positive comment on social media, sharing their comment can help spread their message to a wider audience. Take this retweet from Cathaway Pacific, for example:
— Cathay Pacific (@cathaypacific) June 29, 2015
By using social media to respond to customer concerns and exult passenger compliments, airlines can start focusing again on what’s important: the consumer.