Airlines and their baggage: when it comes to Customer Experience, it goes beyond the overhead bin

By Chris Bucholtz

If stand-up comedy and CRM punditry have one thing in common, it’s the fact that talking about airline travel is a hack move. Cheesy. Low-effort. Played out. Not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel – it’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel (to steal a joke from Todd Barry, who is a stand-up comic and who, as far as I know, has never resorted to mocking the airline experience).

But I am nothing if not a bit of a hack – I mean, an airplane nerd, and thus I have a free pass to re-visit all topics aeronautical. I was moved to bring the subject up by a recent column by Jason Perlow. Basically, Jason advocates that business travelers check their luggage for the good of all humanity in the subtly-titled “Business Travelers: Check Your Damn Bags, Please.”

That goes back to something I’ve been saying about the concept of consistency in the customer experience (like I did here last week). Airlines are horrible at this – and the bag thing is the most visible example of this.

Several years ago, the airlines were suffering from terrible press for the deteriorating rate of on-time flights. There were more flights then, and congestion played a part in that, but so did “turn-around” – the ability of crews to shoo the passengers off, clean and service the plane, and load the next batch of passengers. Much analysis was done and one of the things that was detected as a possible means of speeding up turn-around was to discourage carry-on luggage. Carry-ons slow the boarding and de-planing process, and things get even slower when the plane reaches capacity and bags have to be passed up to the front of the plane to be loaded into the hold.

Then, a few years later, a new set of business drivers came into effect and demanded that airlines find new ways of extracting money from customers, and one of the key means of achieving this was to charge for checked bags.

What did that decision do? It brought all that luggage – and then some – back into the cabins and the overhead bins. It also extended turn-around times, which wasn’t as big a problem for the airlines since the number of flights had dropped and airport congestion wasn’t as severe as it had been.

But what about the customer experience? In neither of these scenarios did the people running the airlines ever consider the customer experience. It was all accountants and efficiency experts and executives who only fly first class and who have the special cards that let them put their luggage wherever they wanted. The average customers’ experiences meant nothing to them.

(And how good are these airline executives at squeezing dollars from the customer, anyway? After all, they charge you to put your bag in the hold, but they don’t charge for the overhead space, which is scarce and convenient, as Steven Cherry pointed out. Isn’t that where you can make the most profit?)

That’s why getting on and off a plane is now an arduous task. I have seen short, old people nearly crushed when some clod yanks his 40-pound bag out of the overhead above them. I’ve seen people with oversized duffel bags on their shoulders turn abruptly in the aisle and drill fellow passengers behind them. I’ve seen children bashed upside the head with the handles of rolling suitcases (because you just have to use the handles, even on the 40-foot journey from your seat to the door). But airlines should take note of this unintended carnage and try to figure out how to keep the last memory of the customer’s interaction with them from being a blow to the head or a flattened foot. That means sticking more stuff in the baggage compartment.

But consistency is important. If an airline realizes how important the customer experience is and changes its baggage policy, it can’t be done by imposing a penalty on customers for having carry-on baggage. It has to be something consistent with expectations while also improving the experience – a gentle move toward checked bags, not a demand of the customers to behave differently because the airline wants them to.

I have to think this is part of why Southwest scores highly in terms of customer experience – there are always plenty of carry-on bags in their cabins, but no one’s compelled to stuff two weeks of clothing in their carry-ons, making things a little less chaotic at the end of a flight.

And airlines don’t always disregard the customer experience. Just today I spotted a Tweet with this photo – apparently, Jet Blue had Chris Isaak play live at its terminal in New York, which is just a great idea for the holidays. I bet the passengers who were there are much more likely to talk about this little enhancement to their experience than they will about any luggage hassle they encounter.

The end result should be about making your airline – or whatever kind of business you run – a better experience for your customers than your competitiors. Making your policies more customer friendly is one way; offering little bonuses like entertainment during crowded and potentially frustrating times of the year is another. In all cases, think about the customer’s experience, not your accountant’s.