Two years ago at New Year’s, I dreamed a beautiful dream of 12 resolutions for the air travel industry. As 2014 begins, let’s ride the Way Back Machine to revisit those resolutions and see whether my dreams came true or became nightmares.
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Resolution No. 1: We, the airline industry, resolve to remind ourselves that ours is a service business. As such, we resolve to banish the phrase “You need to…” from our vocabulary when talking to passengers and never, ever, to raise our voices (as in “ELBOWS!” while wheeling a cart down the aisle). Instead, let’s use phrases like “If you wouldn’t mind…”, “May I ask you to…?”, “I’d suggest…” and the ever-popular “Please.”
How’d we do? Better, but overall still a ways to go. Americans are generally really good at service with a smile, yet I hear from many travelers that they’d rather fly any overseas airline than a U.S.-based one.
Maybe airlines can take a reminder from this quote by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon: “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” You don’t need to be Emily Post to know that one graceless comment or off-putting glance can spoil that party.
New rules for gate-to-gate use of electronics should eliminate a large source of the friction, and expansion and improvement of airlines’ smart-phone apps mean a lot more ways for travelers to get things done without relying on airline staff, lessening their workload and stress level.
Resolution No. 2: We, cities, resolve to provide efficient, frequent, reasonably priced public transit between the airport and city center. Kudos to the airport rail systems in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York (well, not LaGuardia), Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle among others. The rest of us really need to work on this.
How’d we do? Progress! Among major airports, Miami and Phoenix have installed rail systems between their main airports and downtown, and Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver and Washington Dulles are constructing them for completion within the next one to three years. Rail provides reliable transport for air travelers and lessens road traffic for everyone else. Other major hubs (L.A. and Houston, I’m talking to you) still have a long way to go, literally.
Grade: New rail cities: A. Cities with no rail: D-.
Resolution No. 3: We, the Transportation Security Administration, resolve to streamline the security process. We sincerely apologize for having kept travelers waiting 45 minutes and more, and we’ll do our best to open more screening lanes at busy times.
How’d we do? Pretty well, actually. The TSA’s Pre-Check program, introduced in late 2011 and rolled out in earnest in 2012, has vastly sped up waits for pre-registered travelers, who no longer have to remove shoes, belts, light jackets and electronics from luggage. It used to be that only airlines’ elite fliers were eligible for Pre-Check, but now anyone can apply. My biggest concern: Pre-Check is getting so popular that TSA may need to open more Pre-Check lanes.
It can still be a slog through the regular security lines, but at least those lines are that much shorter. And from personal experience, I’ve found the ID checkers willing to smile a bit and show some genuine warmth.
Resolution No. 4: We, airports, recognizing that a fast food diet is killing Americans, resolve to provide decent, reasonably priced food options. We also resolve to provide free wi-fi because it’s finally dawned on us that charging for it annoys the hell out of passengers and is just plain silly.
How’d we do? It varies by airport, but overall there’s a lot to cheer about. Big airports like Los Angeles and Newark have stepped up their game with branches of well regarded local restaurants serving real food – this helped bolt the newly redesigned International Terminal at LAX from noplace to showplace.
At other airports dominated by national chains and food courts, it’s hard to feel the love. If I’m going to pay $10 for a sandwich, I want to at least feel that it’s made with a modicum of care and not just fast food at jacked up prices.
Wi-fi is another matter. Most airports that offered it for free two years ago still do, and those that didn’t still don’t. And is just my impression, or do the paid services break down when a lot of people try to use them at once, such as might happen at, oh, say, an airport?
And a new resolution, if I may: airports should provide convenient and plentiful charging stations around gates for passengers’ personal electronics. At most airports, these are too few and far between.
Grade: B (restaurants); C (wi-fi)
Resolution No. 5: We, gate staff, resolve to provide timely information in case of delays. We also resolve to clearly announce and enforce boarding procedures and carry-on luggage limits, so that passengers don’t rush the door to claim overhead bin space like it’s the Oklahoma Land Grab.
How’d we do? New group and zone boarding systems have helped organize and streamline the boarding process.
But timely information remains a problem, such as departure times that keep changing when a flight is delayed. In gate agents’ defense, they can only report what they hear from the airline, but from the passenger perspective, incomplete information leads to suspicion and bad karma, and nobody wants bad karma, do they? Just keep us informed, please, and treat us like adults, and it’s OK to apologize when passengers are inconvenienced.
Resolution No. 6: We, cockpit crews, resolve to keep passengers informed of delays, expected turbulence and other factors that might hinder their travel experience (along with the occasional sports score).
How’d we do? Pretty well, thank you, but please also remember to turn off the Fasten Seat Belt sign when the turbulence is over. Passengers can ignore nature’s call for only so long.
Corollary request for flight crews: when a plane arrives late, please suggest that anyone without a connection remain seated to allow those with connections to exit first.
Resolution No. 7: We, passengers, resolve to be conscious of those around us. We’ll look behind before reclining our seats and take care not to bonk someone on the head with a bag that was probably too big to carry on in the first place. We’ll keep noise from conversation and electronic devices to a minimum, help our fellow travelers stow and remove their luggage in the overhead bins, and – because some of us evidently need to be told – shower. (Shudder.)
How’d we do? Until airlines stop charging to check luggage (not likely as these and other fees help to keep fares down), large carry-ons are here to stay. But at least we passengers could ensure that our bags fit as efficiently as possible to make way for the bags of others.
Another thing potentially in travelers’ control: mobile phone conversations on planes. The FCC is currently taking comments on whether to allow this, at www.fcc.gov. You know what to do. (Click “Comment” under “Take Action” and search for proceeding No. 13-301.)
Grade: Could still play better with others.
Resolution No. 8: We, airlines, resolve to update our aircraft with those mini seat back TVs, sound systems that work every time (not most of the time) and power outlets at seats that don’t require an obsolete plug. We’ll also bring back blankets and pillows on overnight flights.
How’d we do? Boy, this one’s confusing. Even within the same airline’s fleet, some planes have seat-back screens, communal screens, live TV mini-screens or no screens at all. On some planes you have to pay to watch, on others you don’t. Some seats have outlets, others don’t, others have outlets only in certain sections.
Thankfully, on-board wi-fi is also becoming increasingly common, but again some planes have it while others don’t, for no discernible reason. And if I may suggest, wi-fi should be, like cocktails, one of those free perks of first and business class.
Grade: Who knows?
Resolution No. 9: We, international airlines, resolve that since, on average, 50 percent of our passengers cannot speak English, we’ll (1) train our flight crews in some basic phrases, (2) provide appropriate language options for in-flight entertainment (what gives with Chinese-language programming dominating flights to Japan?), (3) equip meal carts with a card showing photos of the meal options and basic multilingual captions, and (4) stop shouting at non-English-speaking passengers in English; after years of trying, we get it that this doesn’t make them understand us better and poisons the experience for everyone.
How’d we do? Individual, seat-back video screens have made a big difference in the language barrier, but personal service customized to the language and culture of the target country could still use improvement. On a recent flight overseas flight I took on a U.S. carrier, the flight attendant couldn’t describe the main meal in English – how was this going to get conveyed in other languages?
Resolution No. 10: We at U.S. Customs & Border Protection resolve to not to give visitors a loathsome first impression of America. When those twisty-turny immigration lines are full, we’ll fully staff the passport control counters. We resolve never to yell things like “US citizens to the left, ALL OTHERS TO THE RIGHT!!”, let alone at visitors who’ve just flown across an ocean, are exhausted, may not understand English and just want, with props to that great American Aretha Franklin, a little respect.
How’d we do? When I travel overseas, I hear local people praise the friendliness of most Americans, and in the next breath talk about how the atrocious arrival experience makes them want to get right back on the plane.
Resolution No. 11 : We, inconvenienced passengers, resolve not to lose it on airline and airport staff members. We now realize that the vast majority of employees are doing the best they can under trying circumstances, and white-hot tantrums are not going to improve the situation.
How’d we do? The vast majority of us are surprisingly chill. Some others of us still need a chill pill.
Grade: A- (most of us), D- (others; quit ruining flying for the rest of us).
Resolution No. 12: All of us, airline and airport employees and travelers alike, resolve to say “please” when making a request, “thank you” when someone’s done something for us and “I’m sorry” when someone’s been inconvenienced by our – or our company’s – actions.
How’d we do? This may sound very Kum Ba Ya, but most of the bad feelings of travel could just be solved by a bit of empathy, patience and a smile. Considering that the U.S. air transport system carries over 815 million passengers per year, it’s a quasi-miracle that it functions as well as it does. Most people are fundamentally decent. All we have to do is show it.
Happy New Year.
Grade: An aspirational A for effort.