It was a powerful reminder of who pays the bills. At each senior management meeting at Virgin Atlantic, we’d leave one chair empty around the table.
In the chair, spiritually if not physically, was our customer. Before every decision made, we’d look at the chair and ask “the customer” if they agreed with that decision.
I can’t help feeling that the customer has been forgotten by some airline teams in recent weeks.
Just this weekend, an American Airlines ground agent was removed from their role for allegedly hitting a customer with a pram at the gate.
The week before, easyJet said it would improve its staff training after an agent had forgotten to explain compensation rules to a couple taken off an overbooked flight.
The month began, of course, with United Airlines embarrassing the whole aviation industry by dragging a passenger off an overbooked flight in the US because he wouldn’t leave his seat, and through no fault of his own.
The chief executive then had the nerve to accuse the passenger of being belligerent.
Where have the customer service values of patience and empathy gone in the airline industry?
I suspect that part of the problem lies in airline teams struggling to keep up with the constant rule changes being forced upon the industry.
Compensation rules are different depending which territory you are in; airlines themselves have different ways of reimbursing customers who’ve had an issue regarding their flight; and the very infrastructure around airline operations is frequently changing, from security measures to the cost of fuel.
In the next few days, the laptop ban put in place last month for flights between several countries, such as Iran and Turkey, and the US and UK is expected to be extended by the US to include some 70 EU airports.
It is highly likely that BA, Virgin Atlantic and other EU carriers will be forced to tell passengers that they cannot bring a laptop, ipad or Kindle into the cabin.
This is likely to frustrate ground staff even more as they deal with customers who either don’t know the rules or who get angry for not being allowed to work on board, or let their children watch films on ipads.
Airlines rapidly need to find solutions so they don’t find themselves “going viral” globally with a passenger video of an incident.
The onus is now on chief executives to take the initiative and put in place measures which help to restore brand reputations of carriers, the industry and their teams on the ground.
Airline teams at the gate are increasingly at the sharp end of customer service, just as cabin crew are on the flight itself.
Many airlines use third parties for “gate-handling” so they need to implement further customer training at these pressure points.
Now is the time for airline leaders to take a firmer stand and set out their own manifestos for how customers will be treated, or cared for, in friendlier language should something go wrong.
A bold and proactive carrier will go beyond the statutory measures for compensation and offer more money for someone to leave an overbooked flight.
The carrier would guarantee a smooth limo transfer to a luxury hotel beyond the airport perimeter for the night.
And the carrier with a customer conscience would offer a silver or gold card for a year as a way of saying sorry.
Airline bosses also need to take a trip to the gate more often, to take the temperature of passengers, and their own teams, during these changing times.
Highly visible, highly proactive airline chief executives will get more marks from their customers, and from the media, than those issuing apologies from their desks after the horse has bolted.
More marks will mean more trips as customers decide to stay with a more consumer-focused airline.