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.

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