Flying has generally been reduced to a commodity in most consumer's eyes. They search multiple sites over the period of 20-30 days looking for changes in prices, gunning for the lowest fare. Airlines in turns have become ruthless at reducing upfront costs and charging for extras such as baggage, meals, drinks, seat upgrades and even charging for the loo. This has led to razor thin margins for airlines and frequent bankruptcies when the economy has dips an airline can't absorb.
Lately our team at work has been contemplating how to stand out from competitors in a world of highly competitive pricing. As someone who flies a few times during the year, price is a factor but it is not the only one and not the highest. If a flight is for business for instance I will consider service and convenience as more important than cost when asked to spend even a few hundred dollars more. I will opt for Porter Airlines if I can fly out of Toronto's Billy Bishop airport located downtown or I'll choose Westjet or Air Canada for travel in North America before choosing a US based airline.
Case in point. I flew Porter Airlines to Montreal for an early morning business trip last week. I was telling my colleague on the flight down how people frequently leave their iPads in the seat pouch when they depart the plane because it's so convenient to put them there and they aren't obtrusive so it's easy to forget about it. An hour after touching down in Montreal we were at a cafe before the big meeting I realized rather ironically that my MacBook Air was left in the seat pocket back on the plane. I panicked and quickly called Porter Airlines baggage claim to see if anyone had found it. Sure enough the agent on the phone after confirming my flight, seat and name said that the file had a note that a MacBook Air was left in the seat pocket and could be picked up at the check in desk before the return flight. When I got to the airport the check in staff all knew about the laptop and I waited a few short minutes while an agent retrieved it from security. Perfectly executed customer service. I thanked the staff and was on my way. I was also sure to check the pocket before departing the plane in Toronto.
Compare this to United Airlines. A friend of mine and her husband were travelling and she forgot her iPhone on the plane. Her husband, using Find My iPhone on his iPhone was able to pinpoint her phone at the end of the gangway, presumably still on the plane. Her request to United agents to let her retrieve it were denied, they wouldn't get it for her and to this day it was never returned.
Contrast this with my experience. She was still at the airport and couldn't convince United agents to actually retrieve it where as I had a note on file about the specific make of computer to properly identify it and tied to my name. I suspect the only reason they didn't call my cell phone is that our office manager booked the flight and didn't provide it.
This isn't the first story I've heard of United's terrible service. Besides numerous anecdotes about rebooked flights we have the famous United Breaks Guitars and United losing a 10 year old girl. The common element to all of these is that United Airlines employees and thus by definition United Airlines simply does not care about their customers or their level of service. They are providing a service solely based on cost seemingly at the expense of all other service factors. Their brand to me is now synonymous with apathy and low cost simply isn't a factor.
It is quite clear to me that while most travel websites and travel advertising constantly focus on price there is a tremendous opportunity to differentiate your product by experience and service. The majority of time we spend on our trips is in destination and so consumers will rightly focus on the value of the resort or hotel but a flight is the beginning and end so it will leave a lasting impression in your mind. I frequently relax when I'm at a hotel and begin to feel the tension return as I make my way to the airport and fly home. The entire end to end experience needs to be rethought as a consumer's final emotional impression of the trip may be disproportionately associated with the flight or even a taxi ride home. But when we're think about an end to end experience, as a travel agency we must always remember the experience starts with us.