Four Simple Ideas to Transform Our Airways

Having all this unexpected time waiting at the airport, ironically while preparing for a talk on innovation, I decided to think about potential strategies to transform the too-often below-par experience of domestic travel in the US.
05/09/2013 12:04pm ET | Updated July 9, 2013
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I recently experienced two five-hour delays at the same airport, in the same 24 hr period, from the same carrier, on the same route. I was Tom Hanks in 'Terminal' for a while there.

The frustrating part was not so much the delay - I know enough about self-regulation to be able to use the time productively. (Give me a chair and a power outlet and I can go for days on my laptop). The real frustration for me was that the problems behind the delay were innately solvable, if only the airlines would innovate a bit more.

Having all this unexpected time, ironically while preparing for a talk on innovation, I decided to think about potential strategies to transform the too-often below-par experience of domestic travel in the US.

First let me say I do understand the airline's challenge. I know that innovation is not easy at the best of times. The trouble with industries that have a high potential for danger (such as hospitals, railways and airlines) is that the ever-present potential for harm unconsciously primes employees and management to focus on risk-mitigation, to be conscious of avoiding threat. While I appreciate that in someone checking a jet engine, this mental state significantly reduces our capacity to innovate around other issues where it might be helpful, like customer service. Studies show that the tiniest threat response can have a dramatic reduction in our basic capacity to solve problems creatively. So we have this situation where innovation is desperately needed, but is really tough for people to think differently when there are so many protocols to manage and safety issues to think about.

So here's my bit to help the airlines innovate, with four creative ideas that came to me during some unexpected downtime. (Airlines, you're welcome.)

Tell it like it is.
I love the American 'can-do' attitude, the ever-present sense of hope that things will get better if we're just optimistic enough. However, the airlines misread human needs in how they provide information. Here's the heart of the matter. The brain craves certainty - it's an innate primary reward to understand the world. We also crave autonomy - an ability to feel in control and make choices about our environment. During my extended delay, I could tell that my airline was not giving me accurate information, but rather drip feeding me data to keep me hopeful about the flight. So I stood at the desk and queried several airline employees about my flight's expected departure time. It was 6pm and the screen said the flight would leave at 8pm. I dug in. My plane it turned out was still in Miami, half way through boarding, and hadn't taken off. That was three hours flight time away. With some basic math, allowing for thirty minutes to taxi out and take off, and thirty minutes to turn around, the earliest my flight would leave NYC was actually 10pm. I asked the airline folks why they don't just put 10pm on the board, and move that time if things got delayed further. That way people could know the real delay and make plans to get a decent meal, catch up on work, take a nap etc. 'Oh, management would never let us do that. It would just never, ever happen' was the response. What management doesn't understand is that as well as messing with people's certainty and autonomy, they are breaking people's expectations over and over. Four times between 6 pm and 8pm they pushed the departure time back 30 minutes. Each time this happened generated more unmet expectations, which generate a strong threat response, also known as frustration. We got to hate the airline not once but four times over.

There are many management practices that look highly logical in theory but turn out to be completely wrong once you involve human beings. 'Forced ranking' of performance being one example, and pay for performance being another. But here is a simple fix that could make fliers fall in love with an airline again. Tell us the truth. We can handle it. What we can't handle is information that keeps us on edge, anxious, uncertain and angry, which we then take out on the poor people at the counters. Tell it like it is, airlines, and we'll love you more than you imagine.

Weather isn't going away - fix the problem at the source.
One of the delays involved a pilot stuck in another airport due to weather. While weather is innately unpredictable, it is entirely predictable that we're going to have bad weather every year, with pilots and planes stuck in places they shouldn't be.

Here's a creative fix. Someone entrepreneurial - perhaps an airline alliance groups - could set up a service for pilots with experience in many planes who want extra money (and rumor has it there's a few of them) to sign up for. They would join a consortium where any airline can call them 24/7 to step in to fly when other pilots are misplaced. While I was stuck at the airport for 5 hours the first time I was imaging a hundred pilots sitting at home in a 30 mile radius, wondering how to pay their bills and what to do with their evening. Imagine a simple automated SMS message out to hundreds of approved pilots with responses in moments. Pay them crazy money to make it worthwhile - think five times their normal fee for their willingness to disrupt their lives. That will still be cheaper than the costs of postponing or cancelling flights. Of course there are complexities to work out here, and it won't always work, but if the airlines work through the problems, we'd have a lot less delay due to weather. We could do the same for airplanes to some degree, with airlines collaborating to have spare jets put into service by other airlines in an emergency, so that we don't have delays because of mechanical problems. Would this be easy to solve? No. Would it make life better for travelers in America, and customers much happier? Yes. We can't fix bad weather, but we can reduce the delays that happen as a result, often in areas where there is no weather problem at all.

Mistakes can happen - clean up your mess fast and customers will love you
At the end of my ten hour ordeal, I was informed of the website that would help me redeem a gift as a token of the airline's care. So I trawl through many pages of this site, filling in way too much information (it should have been a one or two click thing.) When I click the submit button, the system comes up with a weird website error. I was now so annoyed, convinced in my sleep deprived madness that they made this hard on purpose, that I committed to never, ever flying this airline again, which so far I have been true to even when it's cost me.

The crazy thing is, a tough travel experience could be turned into an opportunity to fall in love with an airline. When our expectations are negative, and we instead get a positive experience, the memory is burned into the brain in an intense way. Unexpected positive rewards are a very strong experience, especially when people feel emotional charged and vulnerable. The airlines could take a leaf out of Apple's book. When their stores are busy, they have teams of sales people wandering around with ipads doing sales in the lines, to move things along. I picture a swarm of customer service people, a positive 'swat' team, leaping into action right at the gate when a bad delay happens, or a flight arrives that has gone through one. With ipads in hand, and apps at the ready for local hotels, car services and other emergency needs, they could take care of people when they are most vulnerable. Imagine the pure delight of travelers actually feeling like their airline cared that they didn't keep their promise. This unexpected reward at a time of need could create customers for life. How hard would this be to do? Not very. How much would customers love the airline? A lot. It would also start to put real costs against delays, so that airlines could more accurately make investment decisions to reduce those costs.

Explain your service levels accurately
We live in a connected world. Many domestic travelers are international travelers. It is time to standardize the travel classes. When global travelers fly here, we shatter their widely held expectations. Right now, we are doing the equivalent of telling someone they will be eating in a 5 star restaurant and sending them to a cheap diner.

So let's be honest. On most US domestic routes, what is called 'First Class' is literally Premium Economy level internationally (and barely that - Premium Economy usually at least has a power outlet and a personal TV screen.) If you have a fully flat bed, and lots of room, feel free to call something first class, as that's what global travelers expect. Let's align what we call things here with the standards around the globe, and we will have fewer surprised visitors who planned to watch movies on their laptop on a 5 hour flight while plugged in, only to find their $2,000 seat gives them no power, no TV screen of their own, and a seat that barely goes back. If we changed the ratings, we would have a lot of flights now with only premium economy. Now carriers would have an incentive to put in actual business class, and a real first class, and in the end make more money across the board, with premium customers delighted to be able to fly a red eye and actually get some sleep on board.

Domestic US Airlines are in trouble, on many levels, and travelers are paying the price. Unmet expectations create strong stress responses, which can last for a lifetime in customers. The airline(s) that work out how to minimize the stress of flying by beating our expectations will be more likely to thrive. As HBR outlines this month, companies don't become great by cost cutting but by having a better product or service. Let's reinvent flying in America, and watch more people travel, more people travel here, and all of our stress levels reducing when we fly. It is just going to take a little innovation.