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Gini Dietrich

What Not to Do: Eight Lessons from Airports

By: Gini Dietrich | January 31, 2013 | 
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As many of you know, I spent a good deal of time on the road last year. Sixty-three trips, to be exact, but who’s counting?

During that time, I had the grand opportunity to get to know the way our government runs airports intimately well.

How should I say this? It, well, sucks.

From people standing around at security while hordes of people wait in line to not being able to read your tablet in airplane mode during takeoff and landing, it’s a huge mess.

Of course, the more you travel, the easier it is to spot the loopholes and soon you’ve weaseled your way through the airport without so much as a second glance.

I always joke that if a terrorist really wanted to take down another plane, all he’d have to do is achieve status with an airline, buy Global Entry, and spend time in airports to find the loopholes. It’d be expensive and take some significant time, but it’d work.

It’s for this very reason, Seth Godin’sEleven Things Organizations Can Learn from Airports” spoke to me.

From his headline, I thought he knew something I didn’t. I read it and realized we completely and wholeheartedly agree. It’s a blog post about the things organizations should not do.

Following is my take on his list:

  1. No one is in charge. I mentioned earlier this week I’m writing the “Sex Sells” chapter of Spin Sucks right now. In it, I show lots of good (and bad) case studies of really good storytelling. One of the things that each good story has is a protagonist…a hero…someone you want to believe in. As it turns out, airports do not have a protagonist. There is no one there you want to believe in. If anything, they’re full of antagonists.
  2. Defend the turf. Have you ever asked an airport employee to help you with something? I have and I’ve never gotten an answer from that person. Instead they blame one another or send you to another department or person. No one wants to help. No one wants to embrace the problem. They just point fingers and duck.
  3. The food sucks. I’m a vegetarian, I’m very active (exercise-wise), and I don’t eat junk food. Eating in an airport is a horrid experience….unless you want a beer, soggy fries, and a burger that’s three days old. O’Hare, of late, has tried to heighten the food experience by adding a Rick Bayless restaurant. Every time I walk past it, I think, “Boy I’d love to try that.” But the food is such you can’t eat and walk or eat while standing up and they have only six chairs at a bar so I always pass on it.
  4. Lack of customer experience. The airlines assume we all want to save money and are willing to sacrifice on convenience, anxiety, and time. WRONG! If I didn’t have status, I’d be willing to pay for it so I could get through the fast security lines and get on and off the plane first. But they never ask. They just assume.
  5. Ruled by superstition. See my joke above about terrorists. If they come through an airport, they’re not going to have bomb-making materials in their shoes or in their full-sized shampoo bottle. Perhaps the theater of removing all of our clothes and taking apart our luggage is for our benefit, not theirs.
  6. No going the extra mile. Last week I was in the Ft. Lauderdale airport. I hate the Ft. Lauderdale airport. There is no Starbucks. There is only one restaurant. And, if you’re lucky, you can find an outlet behind the counter. But guess what? If there is a flight going out from that gate, they won’t let you use that outlet. Nor will they let you use an extension cord so you’re not actually behind the counter. That whole, “Helping the customer” thing doesn’t even occur to them.
  7. Surprise! I hate surprises of all kinds. I don’t even like good surprises. It’s probably because I like to be in control. But airports don’t have good surprises. They have only bad ones: Canceled flights, strip searches, changed gates, seat changes…it’s all bad. Very, very bad.
  8. No fun. Lots of people complain about LAX, but I don’t mind it. I fly American and they have their own little security entrance that no one else can use. For about two years, every time I went through LAX, I was met with a young man who was excited and delighted to be at work. He would look at your ID and greet you by name. He’d talk to you if you were waiting for people to get through the line. He was fun to have around. After a few trips, he began to recognize me and we’d chat like old friends. Two trips ago, he wasn’t there. I inquired about him. He’d been fired. Why? He “delayed passengers,” which I took as, “He was having too much fun with passengers.” Now that security line is as boring as the rest.

I shortened Seth’s list a bit, but the point is there is a lot you can learn from airports – and not just in the U.S.; this is a global problem – about what not to do in business.

What would you add to this list?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

80 comments
TimBradleyWriter
TimBradleyWriter

It seems that to address all of these points, you'd have to upend several discrete hierarchies: TSA, FAA, NTSB, local law enforcement, food companies, airlines, ticketing agencies, unions (pilot, attendants, baggage handlers, etc.), airport staff, et al. Good luck! P.S. Spirit Airlines has none.

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

As to the "no tablets" rule... I believe it is more about crowd control or classroom management. I saw a special where they took off and landed in a p[lane full of electronics actively sending and receiving messages. I believe the air staff already have enough troubles getting the active attention of the passengers to reinforce safety messages. While you and I travel tons G, there are many who do not, and need to hear those safety messages.  All they ask is for a few minutes of undivided attention during the most dangerous times of the flight, and I give it graciously, as they really do have our safety in mind. 

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Love this! I also spend way too much time in airports. I know where all the outlets in the Calgary airport are, even the one you have to climb under a billboard to get to. I have to say, I am fortuitous enough to fly mostly with WestJet here in Canada, and their employees are always helpful and happy. I will do almost anything to avoid flying in and out of YYZ, especially on an Air Canada flight... *Shudder*...

Nic_Cartwright
Nic_Cartwright

airlines "can" get a bum deal sometimes I think.....  they have to put on a service that is 100% safe and pleasant for all in a standardized format - the seats all have to be the same size / the space between the seats have to be the same size, the food has to be relatively standardized.......  when their customers feel that they deserve a personalized service (more leg room for my 7' 6" uncle (#madeupfamilymembers) and wheat free bread for my health conscious aunt (#seeearlierfamilyreferecne).  All whilst trying to turn a profit when the biggest costs (Tax and Oil) are controlled by others (govt and the real world powers!)

 

Most other industries have more scope for flexibility and less issues with failure (the plane HAS to work!) - so when I travel, maybe my standards drop a little (we are FLYING "!!" eek - after all).

 

Having said all that (and no - I do not work for an airline, never have, and probably never will) - the points you make still 100% apply and there are some good airlines out there who are fun to fly with - and some disastrous ones who fill me with dread at their name...  

 

Sadly - Europe's flight success story - ryanair - bases its business model on deliberate poor customer service (to keep customer costs down).....  The world's current modus operani of "Pile em high and sell em cheap" - seems to work!!

jeanniecw
jeanniecw

I'm always shocked at how bad the experience is when I travel.  It also doesn't help to get crazy super status man who likes to let you know he's the best.

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Dan Wallace
Dan Wallace

Happened to see this on CNN just now.  http://money.cnn.com/2013/01/31/technology/innovation/blackjet-uber-jets/  I've thought for a long time that this would/will happen eventually.  The industry splitting in two - small jets providing high-end service for the <5% who want it, and airborne buses the other 95%.  The small jet thing has been tried before w/o success.  Too expensive and not convenient enough.  But I think the industry will get there someday.

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

Oh, and the inhumanity of making smaller seats and adding rows.  Charging extra for an exit row, which is a volunteer service that should not be for sale.  Hidden fees -- like baggage fees.  You know me, I'm not one for more government, but we need a passenger bill of rights by law, not a voluntary agreement the airlines never live up to.  Maybe these have less to do with airports pe se, but it's inclusive of the overall flying experience. 

jdrobertson
jdrobertson

To go by air - to not go by air! Why is it I seem to be only one in the terminal to help  a fellow passenger -  someone who is less capable than myself with - her/his baggage? Is it because I'm not loaded down with electronic equipment in use and just too important to relate to my fellow passenger? Or is it because I need to get to some flat surface where I can set up my portable office so I can conduct business for the 40 minute layover? Or is it because I can afford $7.00 for a cup of what must be arguably the most horrible coffee AKA Starbucks and must elbow my way through the crowd to get it? Or is it because I'm rich and important and don't need anybody for anything except that which I demand. I ride last class because it's all I can afford - but I usually bring a book to read and try to be a friend to man.

jmjm55077
jmjm55077

When they create the time travel portal to beam us around, half these complaints won't matter...hopefully!

Dan Wallace
Dan Wallace

Great stuff, Gini.  The power of deciding what NOT to do is immense.  If I ever get my head actually writing a book on this, it will be called "Fire Away!"

 

At the risk of seeming self-serving (a risk I incur at least several times a day), here are three blog posts I wrote over the past couple of years about my airport experiences. The stories are true, I promise a few laughs, and there's some sexual humor.   If that doesn't get you to read them (Sex Sells), what will?

 

http://dwallace12.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/pain-in-the-ass-ism/

http://dwallace12.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/be-still-my-traveling-heart/

http://dwallace12.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/security-theater-2/

 

Regarding #4, the airlines have a business model problem.  In the late 90s, 10% of passengers - those in the first 15 or so rows of the plane - accounted for 40% of revenue.  By the early 2000s, both numbers had fallen by half - 5% of passengers accounted for 20% of revenue.  Those numbers haven't gone up, and have probably gone down.  The airlines would love to figure out how to break the plane into 2 pieces, but they can't.  SWA and perhaps Jet Blue, unburdened by legacy, have business models that provide a good experience for the 95%.  The rest are stuck trying to figure out how to provide differential experiences on a single set of assets.  Very difficult, which is why they now make the basic service so uncomfortable that many people will pay to avoid pain. 

 

In Competitive Strategy (which his students, me included, lovingly referred to as "The Old Testament"), Michael Porter described industries with low entry and high exit barriers as producing returns that are both low and volatile.  Over its entire history of ups and downs (see what I did there?), the airline industry's ROI has been. . .0%.

 

Lastly, I went through O'Hare last weekend and had time to try Bayless.  Not  bad, there were seats at the bar on Sat AM, and I even got an outlet!

stevenmcoyle
stevenmcoyle

I would add:  "This flight is over booked, would anyone like to give up their seat?"

 

If no one volunteers, the last person in coach to check-in gets bumped from the flight. I've yet to understand why Airlines overbook flights. It's bad business to stretch yourself thin on purpose, take a customer's money and then inform them you can't accommodate what they paid for because you sold too many tickets. And the gate attendees are never ever sympathetic, almost like it's the customer's fault.    

Adam | Customer Experience
Adam | Customer Experience

I actually wrote about airline/airport customer service awhile back. The biggest problem is a lack of economic incentives for improving the customer (traveller) experience. The airlines themselves are oligopolies, the airports are virtual monopolies, and the government, which is a huge participant in this experience, is a pure monopoly. 

 

There are a ton of ways air travel could be improved (per your list), but will that move the profit needle for most of the players? There is little to no competitive impetus to drive change.

 

Perhaps the players don’t have a sense of the opportunity cost. Unless it is a rush trip, I’ll usually take the car for anything that is a 7 hour drive or less. But perhaps there are not enough people that make those decisions. 

 

There certainly are exceptions, so it's not all gloomy. Some airlines are trying to improve, but so much of the experience is still outside their control. Overall, I just don’t see the economic incentives being in place for the system to drastically change. 

KevinVandever
KevinVandever

Ah, yes, the airport has been inspiration for how NOT to do things for a while now. I wrote a column in a tech newsletter back in 2003 comparing how IT's user community might view IT like the rest of us view the airport when it comes to customer service. Different procedural issues back then, but the points made by your eight bullets are the same now as it was then. 

T60Productions
T60Productions

First, I tried the Rick Bayless "restaurant" at O'Hare on a recent business trip... even blogged about it (http://t60productions.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/celebrity-chefs-airport-video/). Get a sandwich to go and take it to your gate... it's possible... and worth it!

 

Second, I have an airport-related video to share! :-)  If all airport personnel were like Cindy, traveling would be a much better experience.

VIDEO-- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6bUwwrVGt8&feature=share&list=PL3EBB53D6432A880E

 

--Tony Gnau

DanielMarrazzo
DanielMarrazzo

This is what Seth Godin wrote a few days ago. Almost exactly...

decillis1
decillis1

Whenever I read what other people say about airports, it just reminds me how lucky we are in Columbus. True, it's a smaller airport, but... You're basically tripping over all of the outlets, free WiFi, local eateries have a place in there right along with the big boys, people are nice and, for the most part, security is a breeze. A lot of what they do helps me out my anti-flying boyfriend at ease (although, I admittedly try to keep him at home for the sake of our relationship ;)). And I LOVE flying Southwest through Newark. The security is the nicest I've met and one of the gate agents is hilarious. When I flew on a pretty empty plane, he asked us to all take a window seat and wave to the other planes. Luckily, these are the two airports I'm mostly in, so I'm always the happiest flyer ever... But once again, only when the boyfriend is home.

allenmireles
allenmireles

I have been the recipient of incredible customer service from airline personnel, but it has been the exception not the rule and it has been when an individual was courageous enough to make decisions based on his or her own personal sense of right or wrong, not because they were following airport or governmental policies. As far as what NOT to do in business? I think you've listed it above. 

bdorman264
bdorman264

I prefer the group strip search........

 

Fortunately most of my 'travel' is local and I don't have to endure the horrors. My best friend is in sales for the Dornier Corp out of Charlotte and he basically covers the 'world' so he travels all the time and he could probably add to this. He hates to travel, it quit being fun and exciting a long time ago.

 

I saw him last night in Orlando and this morning at the Orlando airport he had a 2 hour delay on his flight because of the weather/front that just went through. Just another reason to love the experience, huh? 

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

Agree with all of this, except I have to say that Newark Liberty has a really wide selection of food. And agree about this not just being the U.S. In fact, the Rome airport makes U.S. airports seem like the pinnacle of efficiency. 

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ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @Dan Wallace The Old Testament. LOL! Clearly I am a high user of airports AND airlines. They know who I am. Why wouldn't they ask people like me how to make the experience better? Heck, I just gave them eight ideas. Seth Godin gave them 11 ideas. All for free.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @decillis1 You know what? You're right! The Columbus airport is VERY nice. I'd forgotten about it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @_AlexisAbel Except I'm a vegetarian so that won't help me. I fly in and out of Terminal 2 mostly. I can tell you everything that is there and where you can find seats and outlets and where the shortest lines are at Starbucks.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @bdorman264 I actually don't mind delays because it means I can get uninterrupted work done. But if I were traveling for pleasure and were delayed, I'd go ballistic. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @AmyVernon HA! True re: Rome! Though they DO have the train from the airport to DT. Wish we had something similar in Toronto. 

jdrobertson
jdrobertson

 @ginidietrich

 Ms. Dietrich - Would you consider taking Amtrak in lieu of air? Amtrak: povides AC voltage at almost every seat - the seats are big and comfortable - the ride is unbelieveably smooth - there is food served in a diner - when the diner is closed there is a snack bar - in most cases the train will drop you off in the downtown area of your destination. If the connections are right - you could get a "red eye"  - allowing you to sleep aboard and (in a room/ette) meet your business obligation in the morning without figuring travel time into your schedule.  

T60Productions
T60Productions

 @ginidietrich  @T60Productions Tony: you're not alone... I get all sorts of people wanting to post anti-United comments on YouTube for that video.

 

You'd like Cindy though... she was awesome.

debdobson62
debdobson62

Columbus airport is sooooo easy.  KC airport a pain.  Once you go through security you're basically screwed.  St Louis is always delayed if there are clouds in the sky and a sprinkle.  But, if you have to fly there or through, take Southwest as gate attendants are friendlier.  My St Louis best friends (years of being stuck with delays or cancelled flights) were the skycab guys and the bartender.  Both took good care of me. 

 

You nailed this for anyone who has the "pleasure" of traveling a lot.  What would drive me nuts is to have to pay for wifi for that 1 hour you had in between flights.

allenmireles
allenmireles

 @ginidietrich I remember. All too well. And the employees of Spirit Airlines demonstrated the worst customer service I have ever enjoyed, working their way through each one of the eight points you've listed with awesome concentration. What was notable to me, was the way they handled my questioning them. They presented me with a document warning me of the consequences of not obeying the rules as if I would be turned over to the authorities upon landing. Someone (a particularly snippy stewardess of limited intelligence) was busy taking the Spirit guidelines and ENFORCING. because she could and that probably represented the high point of the power in her life. Kind of scary, because it was taken waaaay out of proportion. I asked a simple question and she made it seem as if I was threatening someone or something.The point I made earlier was to say that I have experienced some incredible customer service--as an exception--not as the rule. For the most part I consider it good day if the flight is uneventful.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @belllindsay  @AmyVernon I'm trying to remember the Rome airport. I don't remember it being painful. You know which airport I hate? Heathrow. HATE. They make you go through security THREE times...even if you're connecting from a flight. HATE.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @_AlexisAbel I had a REALLY bad sushi experience about seven years ago and have never been able to get past the gag reflex when rice and seaweed are combined. I've tried vegetarian sushi, but I can't do it. It makes me sad...I used to LOVE sushi. But it was the catalyst for going entirely vegetarian (I was pescatarian to that point). 

sazbean
sazbean

 @allenmireles  @ginidietrich We had a horrid experience with Spirit airlines about 6 years ago trying to get home from Disney World.  Long story, short, we ended up renting a car and driving home because it was cheaper than rebooking that they weren't going to pay for.  I'll never fly with them again.  I'll pay more for another airline just to avoid them.

 

The electronics issue is so dumb.  I understand wanting people to pay more attention during takeoff and landing, but no one does that anyway -- if you can't turn on your ipad, you usually have brought something else to keep your attention.

 

I wish there was more thinking and less bullying at airports.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @allenmireles I was on a flight working one time and a flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was not allowed to use my mouse during flight. Yes, the mouse. On the laptop. I looked at her incredulously and said, "How, on earth, am I supposed to work if I can't use my mouse?" She shrugged her shoulders and told me if she caught me using it again, she'd have the authorities waiting for me when we landed. I kind of rolled my eyes and just went back to my work. A few minutes later, she brought her fellow flight attendant back with her and had a 300 page manual they use...on page 216 there was a bullet point that said it was up to their discretion if passengers were allowed to use their mouse, if they thought it was interfering with the plane's systems. I've never been so angry.

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

 @ginidietrich  @belllindsay Trust me, Gini, you blocked it out of your memory. And I was just at Heathrow earlier this year and only had to go through security once. Though, on the line for security, I was asked at least 6 times if I had any liquids. Or makeup. Or lip balm. Or liquids. I was hysterically laughing by the time I reached the passport check.

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