Airports and customer service

I was driving to work this morning and heard a Jiffy Lube radio commercial touting their customer service. 

A classic advertising device is to make your point by contrasting what you offer with another product universally seen as lacking. In this case, Jiffy Lube used the airline industry as its foil. They pointed to all the different fees (taxes) airlines charge as well as their reputation for not listening to the customer. They conclude by saying one is tempted to complain to airlines, but perhaps it is better not to because there may be a charge for that too. 

(As a side note, Ryanair is now talking about forcing passengers to load their own bags now, in addition to charging them to use the toilet. What’s next?). 

I take no pleasure in this. Airlines and airports are linked in many ways and manyasq image passengers are unable to discern the difference, all they know is that the travel experience was bad and that washes up on airports. 

But it does reinforce the idea that airports are truly the representative of the passenger and it is airports that are most proactive in protecting and looking out for the interests of our passengers. Over a period of many decades, the airline industry has put itself forward as the ultimate defender of passenger interests; I think the events and trends of the past few years have changed that. Airports are stepping up to the plate and it has never been more important that they do so.

IATA’s CEO ignores the facts

I’m writing from the train between Edinburgh and Manchester. We just pulled into the Lockerbie stop. It is impossible to be here without remembering Pan Am 103, and without understanding the need for smart, effective security. 

The train back to Manchester is "ridiculously inadequate." it is like riding the D.C. Metro for 3.5 hours.

The train back to Manchester is "ridiculously inadequate." it is like riding the D.C. Metro for 3.5 hours.

The train we are on is ridiculously inadequate. It is a 3 1/2 hour trip and has the feel of the Washington Metro at rush hour. Hey, British transport planners!  Get a clue! 

Speaking of getting a clue, I just read a story in a British newspaper (The Independent) about Giovanni Bisignani, Director General of the International Air Transport Association, which represents most of the world’s airlines. Part of his job is to make people believe airlines have nothing to do with their own financial problems, which is fair enough. But he just can’t seem to resist the temptation to blame others, with airports being his favorite targets. 

Bisignani is upset that airport charges are up in some places. He uses a figure of $1.5 billion, don’t know if that is net but it is a worldwide figure. Hmmm. When airlines in the US alone have increased fees (I suppose we can call them airline taxes, just as airlines like to call airport fees), have increased airline taxes on things like bags, phone reservations, etc by enough to raise nearly $4 billion this year, MORE than the U.S. government spends on its airport grant program, it is amusing to hear an airline official complain about such things. Even more amusing when you consider airlines don’t even come close to paying for the infrastructure they use. In Europe, I learned that airline charges are 21 percent of airport revenues. U.S. figures are in a similar range. It is also amusing when you consider that airport costs are only 4 percent of total airline costs. 

Airlines like to point to the layoffs and furloughs they have endured, and that also is fair enough. But airports have been laying people off, furloughing them and /or cutting pay around the country, by as much as 30 percent in some places. Many projects are being deferred or cancelled. There is a similar story here in Europe. 

Perhaps Mr Bisignani’s statements are popular with his members. But they don’t help move the industry forward, and they certainly fail to shine any real light on a difficult challenge.

An aviation “criminal” reporting from Loch Ness

I’m writing this on a bus touring through the Scottish Highlands. We are on the way to Loch Ness

Two headlines in the papers here have garnered a lot of attention. 

First is the expenses scandal involving members of Parliament from both parties. Just last night, the scandal claimed a member of the government. In most cases, the scandal involves members claiming housing related expenses that went well beyond what common sense would dictate they should claim. Now some are calling for MP’s to be housed in dorms, perhaps the Olympic Village being built for the 2012 Games

The other is the story about Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, offering to work a month without pay. Fine so far, but then he asked all his employees to do the same. The request was almost made in the same way as a request for a donation to your church or favorite charity. 

Most stories point out that Walsh makes 50 percent more in one month than his average employee does in a full year. This request seems to be boomeranging against Walsh in the court of public opinion. 

We are now on a boat on Loch Ness. No sign of the Loch Ness Monster. Word is the monster took a new job — Head of Customer Service for Ryanair

A final word on the ACI Europe meeting, Manchester Airport and its CEO Geoff Muirhead did a fabulous job hosting us. Manchester is one of the most advanced airports in the world in its environmental procedures. It is fitting that this was the place that ACI Europe launched its carbon accreditation scheme. 

Plane Stupid's protest in Manchester at the ACI Europe meeting.

Plane Stupid's protest in Manchester at the ACI Europe meeting.

As noted earlier this week, an anti-aviation environmental group protested at the closing dinner, which was held at Manchester’s beautiful Town Hall. Their signs said “climate criminals inside.” A constable walked up and asked if I was one of the criminals. We all had a good chuckle, but it is a sign of things to come unless we take prudent steps now.

Airline extra fees – European style

I heard an interesting and disturbing story at the ACI Europe annual meeting. 

European low cost carriers have led the way in the world on unbundling of airline fees. This has carried across the Atlantic, leading to those baggage and other fees. 

As reported before in this space, Ryannair has recently revived its idea of charging to use the toilet, be on the lookout for that. 

esyJet would not allow this teddy bear in the cabin.

easyJet would not allow this teddy bear in the cabin.

More ominously, though, is their stirct rules and charges for carry on bags. They are so hungry for revenue that they actually tried to charge a customer 30 euros to carry on a newspaper purchased at the airport because it exceeded the carry on limit. 

Even more egregious, a European airline forced a mother to have to mail home her child’s teddy bear rather than have to pay a fee for the teddy bear as an extra carry on. 

It is unbelievable, but true. Be on the lookout for such trends.

Climate change and soccer from Manchester

I’m writing from Manchester, England, site of the 2009 ACI Europe annual meeting. We also held an ACI-NA board meeting here. The ACI-NA and Europe boards meet together every year, alternating sides of the Atlantic. 

Manchester is a very lively city, probably partly due to the fact that there are three universities here. And, a lot of very nice pubs. 

Two college soccer goalkeepers at Old Trafford - Mark Reis, Seattle's airport director, and myself.

Two college soccer goalkeepers at Old Trafford - Mark Reis, Seattle's airport director, and myself.

A highlight was the social event last night at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United and one of the most iconic sports venues in the world. A real thrill for a former college soccer player. 

The joint board meeting, naturally, focused heavily on how airports are responding to the financial crisis. It is always interesting to see how much airports have in common, regardless of where in the world they might be. Other issues included security, especially liquids and gels, and environment, especially climate change. 

On the first day of the ACI Europe conference, the organization launched its new carbon accreditation system, which includes 32 airports. This is the result of two years of work by ACI Europe airports and staff. Political pressure on climate change in Europe is hard to overstate and this effort is a laudable one. 

Showing that no good deed goes unpunished, however, protestors came into the meeting shouting “your time is over!” and releasing balloons. It did not hamper the ceremony, but it was a sign of the times in Europe. A responsible transportation organization makes a bold move and even so there are protests. We have a chance to stay ahead of this in North America and we need to do so. Along those lines, the ACI-NA board also adopted a policy statement on climate change. 

Even so, the economic crisis overwhelms every other issue in the various meetings and hallway discussions; it is keenly felt here.

A Few Random Airport Thoughts

The big airport story of the week…..Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor trips at LaGuardia and breaks a bone in her leg.  No truth to the rumor that a security camera showed someone looking like Rush Limbaugh vaulting over bags and passengers running from the scene.  It is a good reminder, though, that arriving in plenty of time for your flight and then walking calmly through the terminal (especially one as crowded as LaGuardia can get) is a good thing to do. 

greg-blog-photoI was flipping through the TV channels last night and watched a little of Rachel Maddow‘s show.  At one point she was talking about some issue, I don’t remember which, and compared the omnipresence of some person or thought to the smell of Cinnabon wafting through an airport terminal.  Is there a traveler out there who doesn’t know what that smells like? 

This morning, there was a story on the Mike and Mike show on ESPN radio about Kareem Abdul Jabbar being wanded by security in order to enter the NBA Finals game last night between the Lakers and Magic.  Mike Greenberg, one of the hosts, told a story about Mike Ditka (Hall of Fame player and Super Bowl winning coach, and renowned tough guy) being wanded at the airport.  Greenberg made the comment that if something went wrong on the plane he’d want Ditka on there.  Me too. 

Like many people in the aviation industry, I have been following the developments in the crash of the Air France flight.  I think the best stories have been the ones I have found on abcnews.com.  No surprise as Lisa Stark covers aviation about as well as it can be covered.  I do wish CNN.com (which I think is a very good news/sports site) would stop quoting Mary Schiavo. 

My sons flew easyjet this morning from England to Portugal.  I am looking forward to hearing about it from them.  I did see that Ryanair is again looking at charging to use the toilet (credit card readers would be installed on the door) and also barf bags.  What if you barf directly on the floor or into the seat pocket? 

I will be leaving Friday to travel to Manchester, England for the ACI Europe annual meeting.  The ACI-NA board meeting will also take place there, as will a joint meeting between our two boards.  We will be discussing economic issues, security, environment and some other things during the joint meeting.  Those subjects will also be dealt with by our board, in addition to the important issue of diversity in airport contracting.  On Monday night, there is a social event at Old Trafford, where Manchester United plays.  As a former (mediocre, at best) college goalkeeper, I am looking forward to visiting one of soccer’s real shrines.  I will blog from Manchester, and from Edinburgh where my wife and I will go for a couple of days of R&R afterwards. 

Yesterday, I drove to Baltimore to attend the Airport Minority Advisory Council (AMAC) annual conference.  AMAC had about a thousand attendees from all over the country there networking and discussing some of the most important issues in the industry today.  ACI-NA and AMAC work on a lot of issues together; it is a partnership of which I am very proud.

Please remember, it is best not to speculate

In the days since Air France flight 447 disappeared there has been much speculation in the media as to cause and as to what exactly happened.  In the last 12 hours I’ve seen a headline stating that the flight broke up in the air and one stating that the flight broke up when it hit the water.  The truth is no one knows, and we all hope the flight data and voice recorders can be found so they can be analyzed and the cause found. 

When I returned from our Marketing and Communications conference in Montréal, someone asked me what the people at the conference think happened.  My response was that the folks at the conference are aviation professionals, so they don’t speculate.  This point was stressed repeatedly in a session on crisis communication using the February crash of Continental Flight 3407 as a case-study. Bill Vanecek, director of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and representatives of the NTSB and Pinnacle Airlines, all emphasized that they only release confirmed facts to the media and do not even entertain speculation questions. It was a well received presentation to a couple hundred airport communicators and airline professionals. When something like this happens, it is important to be careful.  And when something like this — for which there is no obvious explanation — happens, it is important to get all the facts.  We should all hope those recorders are found and recovered so a true cause can be found and so this will not happen again. 

Attending the ACI-NA Marketing and Communications Conference (left to right) Cheryl Marcell, Sacramento, committee chair; Jim Cherry, Montreal airports CEO and ACI World chair; Angela Gittens, ACI World director general; Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada CEO; and myself.

Attending the ACI-NA Marketing and Communications Conference (left to right) Cheryl Marcell, Sacramento, committee chair; Jim Cherry, Montreal airports CEO and ACI World chair; Angela Gittens, ACI World director general; Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada CEO; and myself.

I stated earlier that true aviation professionals don’t speculate at times like this, they look for facts and analysis.  So it is no surprise that Mary Schiavo, the former DOT Inspector General who has made her living since leaving DOT trying to scare people about flying (I wrote about her in an earlier post) did speculate, stating the other day that a lightening strike could be “like an atom bomb.”  

In 30 years in Washington I have never seen someone abuse the status that comes with an earlier government post like she has.  Can we please stop putting microphones in front of her face?  There are a lot of people in the media I respect greatly.  But until a decision is made to stop interviewing Mary Schiavo at times like this I will always respect the media just a little bit less than I otherwise would. 

As I told the conference on Monday morning, this is a time to keep the passengers and crew, and their families and friends in our thoughts and prayers.  And to hope we get all the facts so that flying may remain the safest, most efficient, means of transport ever devised.

Reflections from Montreal

I’m writing from Montreal, attending ACI-NA’s Marketing and Communications conference. We also hold our annual Jump Start Air Service Development program during this conference. 

This is always one of my favorite events. We have more than 375 people here from all over the U.S. and Canada (and a few from elsewhere). These are tough times, and the need to clearly communicate what airports are doing to serve their customers has never been more important. And, of course, it has never been more important to market communities and airports to airlines looking for air service opportunities (that’s what Jump Start is all about.) 

We had the CEO of Air Canada, Calin Rovinescu, ceohelp us open the event, along with Jim Cherry, CEO of Aeroports de Montreal and Charles Lapointe, CEO of Tourisme Montreal

Sessions include the use of social media, the state of the aviation industry, media relations, environment and crisis management. As I pointed out in my opening comments, last years conference focused on the negative impact of $140-a-barrel oil, oil is down more than half but our economic woes were only beginning. When I came to my first MarComm/Jump Start event three years ago there was a lot of energy and optimism. Energy is still present, that’s the kind of group this is. But the optimism is mostly gone.

 

The day began on a somber note as both Mr. Rovinescu and I each asked the audience to remember the passengers and crew on the Air France flight lost over the Atlantic. We have the safest mode of transport ever devised, but accidents like this really take your breath away.