The Tom Dougherty Blog


Posts categorized “Airlines”

Will any airline step up to the plate?

 Subscribe in a reader

It sure does not look like any airline really gives a hoot about the customers who fly them regularly. I just blogged a week or so back about how, as a Star Alliance member, my choices and benefits were divided by thirds and partially removed because of the American Airlines merger with US Air. I have no more access to the old US Air clubs and many cities that were Star Alliance hubs have just vanished for me.

Well, American Airlines today just made the new merged airline worse for those flyers trapped with American (people who flew from US Airways hubs). Take a look at this:

No more blackout days for redeeming miles on US Airways, matching the policy at American.

  1. For U.S. travel on or after June 1, American members can redeem miles for an unrestricted “AAnytime” award at 20,000 miles, 30,000 miles or 50,000 each way instead of the current 25,000-mile flat rate. The less-flexible “MileSAAver”awards will continue to start at 12,500 miles.
  2. Mile requirements will change on many international trips.
  3. There will be no more free checked bags for American Airlines passengers traveling on miles they earned or who paid full price for an economy seat.
  4. Some elite-level frequent fliers on both airlines will get to check one less free bag than before.
  5. The charge for a second checked bag on trips to South America is being dropped.

Does it not seem a bit arrogant to pull benefits and obligations from the same flyers that routinely pay your bills? Who can afford this total disregard of customers? I’ll tell you who…MONOPOLIES. And the airlines are just that. They don’t care because, as flyers, we have no choice.

American AirlinesFly out of Newark, Dulles, O’Hare (they have two choices), Houston San Fran, LA, or Denver and you are OWNED by United. Fly out of Atlanta or Minneapolis and Delta owns you. Fly out of Charlotte, Philadelphia, or Dallas and American owns you. They can make any decision they want and the market is still indentured.

So step up. Will one of the airlines understand that what looks like a self inflicted wound by expanding frequent flyer benefits would have the same positive impact that CVS got from banning cigarette sales? Sure it looks as though it hurts profits, but in fact it says that customers matter. That being a provider of hospitality is really what you are. Transportation is simply how you dimensionalize it.

So United and Delta, will either of you step up to the plate and declare on the side of your customers and, more importantly, your prospects? Give equal status based upon the most recent American Airlines status and throw in a few more perks that says you are starting a war for our branded hearts? Would I drive 50 miles to a different airport to take advantage of it? You bet. Flights are so bad right now that half of my connecting flights are delayed or cancelled anyhow. I’m up for it. I would love to know that someone in the industry gets it.

Lufthansa strike is just another nail in the coffin for the airline industry

 Subscribe in a reader

Today, Lufthansa cancelled 3,800 flights because of a wage dispute with pilots. Usually, I rail against US domestic carriers and their deflated position among passengers. No one seems happy with their preferred carrier, and I use the term preferred with trepidation. After all, it seems to me that no one really likes their airline. They just seem to hate them less than others.

lufthansa strikeThe international carriers like Lufthansa (a domestic carrier in Europe) have taken their hits as well and the strike today just reinforces the airline industry’s lack of understanding. They just don’t seem to realize they are part of the hospitality business as much as they are part of the transportation segment.

The standoff is because of an operational business decision. The Lufthansa strike is about what constitutes fair pay and benefits for pilots. The traveler is not in the mix. We are just collateral damage. Flying around Europe — in and out of the Lufthansa hub in Frankfort – it does not take a genius to see how vital Lufthansa is for business.

However, the ramifications are not about the business of Lufthansa, it is about the business of the Lufthansa brand. And it has very important impact on the airline alliance brands. For those that rely on the airlines for business connections, this is not just an inconvenience. It is a loss of revenue and business success. If you need to get somewhere and can’t, well, it means you can’t conduct business. The 3,800 flights are not a small bleep. On the contrary, they are a major setback.

The Star Alliance will take a major hit tomorrow when US Airways disappears and American Airlines emerges from the merger. This is a huge realignment of airline alliances and makes international flights by Star Alliance members difficult in transatlantic flights. How many travelers will align with a different carrier with both Lufthansa and US Air suddenly unavailable?

Considering that the airlines have been demoted to being noticed only at the time of failure, I can tell you that my golden handcuffs to the Star Alliance are beginning to seem more like anchors.

United Airlines getting higher fees with the help of TSA

 Subscribe in a reader

United Airlines is, according to reports, getting help from the US government in collecting more fees from passengers. Oh, I know the article did not read that way exactly, but it is what the article says.

According to those reports, United has asked the TSA to help it screen oversized bags during the security check and send those non-compliant travelers back to the check-in counter to pay and check the bags. This is not a new rule. It is just another example of how the airlines continue to view their customers as both an advisory and a deep well of uncollected fees.

blogSpanThis comes right when US Airways is exiting from the Star Alliance, knocking a huge slice out of the United brand’s appeal to frequent travelers like myself. In years past, if United could not get me to many of the destinations I needed, I could fly US Airways and still collect my frequent flyer miles on United. No more. The only one collecting anything anymore is United.

Previously, if your bag was too large for the carry-on compartments, United would check the bag at the gate for no fee. Now, when TSA sends you back to the counter, United will charge you an additional fee to check the bag. Oh, don’t worry. United says this is not because it wants to squeeze more cash out of the already tightly squeezed sardines that fill its aging fleet of aircraft. It says it’s just decided to enforce a long-standing regulation.

Really? “United collects $638 million in checked-bag fees a year but wants to increase that figure. In a January earnings call, the airline’s chief revenue officer, Jim Compton, said United hopes to collect an extra $700 million over the next four years from extras such as baggage fees and the sale of extra legroom,” said the report from the Associated Press.

Here is the basic problem with airlines, and in fact, most publically traded companies. They confuse their constituency with the investor. You know the investor? He is the gambler that places uninformed wagers on companies like Best Buy.

The most powerful brands reflect the customer they wish to influence. In United’s case, that is the gambler… sorry, I mean investor. United obviously knows nothing about the customer who flies on its airline.

Just this week, in planning a quick business trip, my travel agent suggested I start  accumulating miles on a different airline alliance so that I have status on more than one grouping. Doesn’t United understand the adversarial relationship it has fostered between its frequent flyers and the brand? We don’t fly United because we love United. We fly United because we have little choice.

Here is a new, in-flight intro movie I suggest for United: “Hi, I’m Jeff Smisek, CEO of United. Thank you for continuing to have to fly our airline. I want to thank you on behalf of the gambling community we continue to serve for paying all of our high fees and for paying for the Wi-Fi we have been promising for years on the three routes on which we have actually installed it. You will be pleased to know that because of your thick wallets, United has been profitable.”

The truth about the American/US Air merger

 Subscribe in a reader

“This is an important day for our customers, our people and our financial stakeholders. This agreement allows us to take the final steps in creating the new American Airlines. With a renewed spirit, we are about to create the world’s leading airline that will offer, along with our oneworld partners, a comprehensive global network and service by the best people in the business. There is much more work ahead of us but we’re energized by the challenge and look forward to competing vigorously in the ever-changing global marketplace.” – American Airlines CEO Tom Horton, and incoming chairman of the combined company of American Airlines and US Airways.

In the coming months, you’ll be hearing the spin about how the American Airlines/US Airways merger will be better for customers because the new airline will, well, just be better.


aa-us-airways-merger-tails-021413The merger is flat-out bad for travelers. The loss of competition means prices will go up. There will be fewer options. And I don’t believe for a second that the newly merged airline will be improved.

Although, now that I think about it, this is the merger of the two worst major airlines in the world. So I guess there’s no place to go but up, right?

Snuck into the agreement with the US Justice Department was this little nugget: The airline must keep its hubs at Charlotte NC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Phoenix and JFK Airport in New York City for three years.

Wow. Way to put the hammer down, Justice League! In three years, the new airline will basically be able to do whatever it wants. And that will be to screw you over as much as it can.

I know the Justice Department got into a pickle here, having already approved mergers for United/Continental and Delta/Northwest. This was pure politics even after the Department filed a legal challenge to the proposed merger months ago.

So, while it was inevitable that a deal would be done, don’t believe it for a second when you start hearing how this merger is better for customers.

It’s pure nonsense.

Glad to hear Gershwin again, but is United really friendly?

 Subscribe in a reader

United launched a new series of terrific ads this weekend, bringing back the old theme of “Fly the Friendly Skies.”

On the one hand, I welcome the return to the familiar “Rhapsody in Blue” because it is a moving equity marker for United’s brand. On the other hand, the promise seems disingenuous at best for any passenger who flies more than a couple of times a year.

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.20.55 AMTo be fair, I am Global Services customer with United and I am afforded a higher degree of customer service than most. During a recent flight from New Mexico, I was met on the jet bridge in Washington DC by a United representative who personally informed me that my next flight was going to be late and that I was welcome to use the United Club at my leisure.

Though I have a club membership, it was a nice sentiment all the same. Is United friendly for me? Absolutely, but I also fly a couple hundred thousand miles a year. My status makes United friendly.

As a counter point, a colleague of mine was traveling with me on the same flight. His status is 1K, which is a step below Global Services. A representative did not meet him. In fact, I was the only person on the entire 200+ person airplane that was met by a representative. Perhaps friendly is only delivered to .5% of those who fly with United.

United is better than most and worse than a few. I fly United because I am trapped in my loyalty program. My status forces it be friendlier to me. But to the common traveler who has little to no status with United, the features and benefits United touts will not be felt by them. Rather, they will be stuck in economy and see no difference in “friendliness” than they would if they were on Delta, American or anyone else.

I want United to be the friendly skies. I want to close my eyes on a flight to Chicago and hear Gershwin in my head. But that is not reality – for United or any other carrier. Even Global Services flying is not all that friendly – it must be downright nasty for someone who hardly ever flies.



Which airlines have the most Wi-Fi enabled flights?

 Subscribe in a reader

There is a lot of chatter in the media this week about in-flight Wi-Fi. Delta and American seem to lead the way with Virgin America and Southwest having almost 100% coverage.

This is an example of why belief systems affect brand values. No doubt there are regulatory issues surrounding the introduction of Wi-Fi on flights. No doubt there are some technical issues too.

But I don’t care.

wifi_usage_600x264I need Wi-Fi when I travel and I BELIEVE all flights should already have it. I base this uneducated belief on the ease of which I have made my home and working places Wi-Fi(ed), to coin a term. I plugged in a wireless router and it simply worked. At home, my Wi-Fi signal is so strong I can use it on my neighbor’s deck.

So, airlines, I am not pleased to find Wi-Fi isn’t on your flight. I consider it a table stake. When you don’t have it, I just figure you don’t care or understand anything about me.

Who knows, maybe you might even figure out that I need an AC plug too. Naaah. That would be asking too much.

Spirit Airlines’s brand may be weak, but at least it has one

 Subscribe in a reader

Consumer Reports just released its annual airline rankings and Spirit Airlines ranked dead last on the list. Ben Baldanza, Spirit’s CEO, was perfectly fine with that, saying legroom, seat size and other airline amenities are not what Spirit is all about. Rather, lowest cost and shareholder value is how Spirit should be measured.

Perhaps he is actually on to something.

Spirit is all about no-nonsense cheap flights. It is very proud and self- effacing about this. Its seats are smaller and it has no beverage service, but its flights are full. Why?  Because Spirit is aiming for a specific audience – the bargain shopper.

ar130383785430026That does not mean Spirit is the most meaningful brand out there. But considering the current state of airline travel, Spirit isn’t any worse than the others. Spirit is at least being upfront about it.

We say all the time that brands have to resonate with people emotionally. For a great many of us, there is significant emotion tied up in saving money. For some, that trumps everything else. Those airline passengers feel they are the smart ones by going cheap. To them, it is not really worth a couple hundred dollars for more leg room and a beverage.

The power of brands is that, by their very nature, they should not be for everyone. This is the fundamental problem for airlines. No one knows whom United, Delta, or American are for. They just seem to be for everyone, which means they are emotionally for no one.

Spirit Airlines is not a brand for everyone, but I can’t deny the power of its brand for those it is trying to reach.

US Airways and American Airlines merger: New logo. Same poor service.

 Subscribe in a reader

Chances are, those who fly either US Airways or American Airlines do so because of a loyalty program. Not because of superior service.

US Airways and American fail to do an adequate job of getting passengers from point A to point B.
The most common metric to measure airline success is the on-time performance rate. Airlines have become so satisfied with mediocrity that they boast when their on-time percentage is above 85 percent.

What kind of success is that? What if your car only started 85 percent of the time? Or if your soda was carbonated only 85 percent of the time? Or if your cable only worked 85 percent of the time?

Chances are, you would switch cars, sodas and cable providers.

Powerful brands cause people to pay more and inconvenience themselves to use them, which is not true with airlines. Passengers choose airlines based on price, schedule and loyalty programs.
Consolidation of airlines is not done to provide a better service. It’s done to pick up additional airports and aircraft. Unfortunately, as the number of airlines dwindles prices jump, service sags and brand becomes irrelevant.

With this merger there will be just four major domestic carriers: United, Southwest, Delta, and the “new” American.

The problems that plagued American to the point of bankruptcy and the sloppy service from US Airways will remain. Who knows, conditions may worsen.

Is there room for an airline to develop a brand that attracts travelers beyond price, schedule and service?

Absolutely. With the consolidation of two inferior carriers, the opportunity is greater than ever.

Yep, US Airways still sucks

 Subscribe in a reader

It has been a while since I had anything scathing to say about US Airways. Of course, I have not flown that airline for a while.

Coincidence? Not on your life.

Here is the latest example of how a brand can be completely out of touch with the needs of its customers:

Last night, I flew back to Greensboro from a client meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. Because of tight scheduling, I was forced to fly USAirways, which requires a stopover in Charlotte.

The initial leg from Greensboro to Charlotte had included a 45-minute hold on the tarmac because of air traffic control issues in Charlotte. The pilot – who represents the brand when you are on the runway – assured all of us that we would still make an “on-time arrival” because the delays are “already built into the schedule.”

US Airways brandLucky us.

Things were just maddeningly inconvenient on the way out, but they became positively gothic on the return trip.

On arrival in Charlotte from Birmingham, the flight board told us to head to the gate for an on-time departure. But our 9:30 p.m. boarding time came and went without so much as an announcement. At 10, we were told the flight was delayed until 11.

With experience as my teacher, I headed to the rental car counters so I could drive the hour and a half back to the Greensboro airport. Unfortunately, it was race week in Charlotte.

“We have zero cars” the Enterprise attendant sighed. “Zero”.

Defeated, I went back through security to take my seat at the gate with the rest of the deflated passengers. Hoping against hope that the flight would eventually take off, two hours later, I was still waiting. Each hour brought word of further delays.

Worse, actual news became a guessing game as passengers tried to decode such revealing things as nods and eye contact on the part of the gate attendant who made it absolutely clear that this delay was a major inconvenience for her, telling us she was “Past due my time to get off.”

No one felt sorry for her. At that moment, she represented the brand.

At midnight she had an announcement. Actually, a rapid string of announcements that I’ll relay here with no editorial comment.


“The flight to Greensboro is further delayed. We will not know the take-off time until 2 a.m. You can see the customer service desk to rebook on the first flight out in the morning. However, until the flight is actually cancelled, US Airways is not responsible for lodging. We will not, I repeat, not be taking bags off of the aircraft for those who have been asking until we know for certain that the flight is cancelled. No, we do not have a shuttle bus to take you to Greensboro. Thank you for choosing US Airways.”

I think they should merge with American Airlines. They share a brand: Bankrupt.

One is financially broke. The other is ethically broken. I’ll leave it to you to decide which is which.

The New US Air – Same old crap.

 Subscribe in a reader

On a US Airways flight yesterday from Philly to Greensboro, I experienced a situation which both epitomizes my discontent with US Airways as well as the airline industry as a whole.

While sitting a plane with a dysfunctional air conditioning system in the sweltering heat in Philadelphia, one of my fellow passengers peered out her window as the gate checked baggage was being carted from the jet bridge to the cargo compartment of the plane we were on. During transit, one of the bags, a bright red roller board, fell from the cart and sat there on the tarmac, unnoticed by the ground crew. The passenger, who was sitting directly in front of me, very politely got the attention of the stewardess as she walked by and informed her of the situation. The stewardess retorted, “Is it your bag?” to which the passenger very politely responded, “no, but I thought you would just like to know.” Without hesitation or any apparent care, the stewardess said, “Well, baggage is not my department, there is really nothing I can do.” With that she turned and walked away.

The passengers around me were stunned. Of those in my immediate proximity, all but the passenger who reported this unfortunate incident, were business travelers in their final leg to get back home. One of them even remarked, “There’s the new US Air for you.”

I bit my tongue, knowing that what I might say would have no bearing on what happened. But in my mind and with rose colored glasses of being a branding consultant, I was furious. At that moment, this stewardess who is supposed to be the face of the US Airways brand, reinforced everything I have been conditioned to expect from US Air – poor customer service, incessant delays, and a general lack of pride in what they do.

I was returning from a trip in which I had discussed with my client the importance of making sure those who have the most customer “face time” are trained and evaluated on their ability to be good brand stewards and I was confronted by the exact situation that is the antithesis of properly caring for your brand. In that simple interaction, the stewardess demonstrated not only that she does not see the US Airways brand as being important but that US Airways as a whole does not see their brand as important. Sure she may have been “trained” to handle that situation better, but she clearly believes she works in a corporate culture where brand is not important else she would have happily handled that situation differently.

How much effort would it have really taken to tell that passenger, “Thank you very much for letting me know, because we at US Air care about the service we provide, let me go and inform the ground crew.” Does creating a culture that is focused on making the miserable experience of traveling for business better through words and simple actions really cost THAT much? Seems like it costs less than having disgruntled passengers in the long run.

I guarantee you that if she had demonstrated even the slightest bit of pride in the US Airways brand, those business travelers around me would have remarked at how impressed they were with her ability to take action and exhibit caring for the brand of the “new US Air.”