Airlines, the service industry and saying “Please”

An article about boarding passengers at airports highlights the difficulty in working in the service industry. However as annoying as customers can be, we still have to say “Please” to them.

Airplanes… expensive on the ground

If you are interested in the latest developments in Science & Technology, but do not consider yourself a “scientist” you should check out the excellent Science & Technology section of The Economist. An article Please be seated: A faster way of boarding planes could save time and money (Sep 3rd 2011) brings to light research done by Dr. Jason Steffen on how to get passengers onto a plane more quickly.

The rationale behind this is quite logical. Planes are said to be making money when they are in the sky flying people from one place to another. It is estimated that for every minute that a plane is on the ground the airline loses $30. Saving 5 to 10 minutes during boarding time could be very useful for an industry that has operating margins of 3-4%.

A new way of boarding

Dr. Steffen’s basic idea is the following. Passengers should be made to board according to their seat allocation. Alternatively spaced window seat passengers (1A, 3A, 5A, etc.) would be boarded first. They would be followed by the remaining window seat passengers (2A, 4A, 6A etc.). Then the middle seats would be filled (1B, 3B, 5B etc.) following the same logic. Still with me? Finally the aisle seat passengers would get on. This all sounds great in theory. Unfortunately, for once, this is an example of research that is great in the laboratory, but would be hard to put into practice.

Anyone who has ever travelled by plane knows just what a messy business it becomes when it is time to board 300 passengers into a space that is the equivalent of 5 medium-sized city apartments. Passengers (the author of this article included!) are notoriously undisciplined and would simply not respect or understand this rather too elaborate system.

Certain passengers, such as families with young children expect to board first. Air France once made me wait twenty minutes at the gate with my 2-year-old son in my arms while they board all the other passengers. Yes, ALL of them! Like most neurotic parents the “son” part was the sensitive issue for me. Had I been alone I wouldn’t have minded. 12 years on I’m still telling the story. You see, customers can bear a grudge… and for a long time.

Boarding…military style

As well as the privileged queue jumpers, there are also the hangers about until the last possible moment (done that as well!) and the people who just try to get in a bit of last-minute shopping lest they arrive home empty-handed. The list could go on and on. Dr. Steffen, an astrophysicist, has forgotten that the laws of nature are somewhat easier to discipline than customers! In fact, the only way to make the system operational would be to employ a sergeant major to shout and scream discipline and submission into passengers at boarding time.

“Stand up straight, 25B, you horrible little man.”

They could then march them onto the plane in military fashion. This is a spectacle that many overworked and abused airline staff would love (perhaps even deserve) to watch. It would certainly take the pressure off them and give them something to chuckle about. However, this may not have a positive effect on long-term repeat business for the company. Geoffrey Carr, Science Editor for The Economist has already pointed out to me that the system is, at the very least, worth trying. He’s right, course. I can’t help thinking though, that a few well-seasoned travellers will be watching on with a wry smile on their face.

Hell is other people

Everyone who has travelled by plane, train or car will understand the Jean Paul Sartre dictum that “Hell is other people.” In the service industry hell can simply be the customers the company is trying to serve. Air travel with all the stress involved seems to bring the worst out in people. Passengers can be ill-disciplined, annoying, forgetful, erratic, egotistical, full of bad faith etc. etc. etc. However, employees just have to deal with this. In fact, it is because they are all of these that the service industry exists. As annoying as clients are, employees are eternally condemned to being nice to those people who pay their salaries. And they have to say “Please”!  Airlines may be flying their customers through the heavens, but they are just going to have to put up with the hell that those same customers can inflict on them.

I would be very interested in your best service / worst service stories. Alternatively, your best customer / worst customer story. These are often even more entertaining!


See also:

Lost Luggage

The Vintage Postcard: “The only memories I have of England are a) airline losing my luggage, b) walking to my hotel on a cobblestone street, and c) riding the tube, (which I actually enjoyed greatly).  But of course, this won’t do. England makes it to the top of places I must revisit. And I must visit it right.”

Mark Thomas

Grenoble EM

ESC Grenoble




Global Ed

International Affairs in Higher Education

Business School


Filed under Airlines, Business, Higher Education, Management, Research, Service Industry, Strategy, Technology

4 responses to “Airlines, the service industry and saying “Please”

  1. The story I’d like to share is not about airplane service. My best service experience is in Haidilao Hot Pot.

    The waiters can treat you considerably and generously like a friend, because they have their own right to offer some extra service. Long queues are the reality, but its hard to complain because of its various free services which make queuing a pleasure in itself. As you are waiting, you can sit down and enjoy fruit salad, melon seeds and other delicious snacks, and even shoe shining and nail care, which are all free. Another impressed point is Haidilao’s amazing pulled noodles performance.

    It is one of the most outstanding restaurant brands in my mind for it’s incredible good service. Actually even the Chinese-language Harvard Business Review had several pages to discuss it’s unique style in 2009. Haidilao’s service might be a revolution.

    • Mark Thomas

      Making waiting a pleasure, eh?! They must be good…or do you have shares in the company?! I had a quick look on the internet but couldn’t find a English version of the article. It sounds like a good concept.
      I am lucky enough to be travelling to China next week and if I have the time I will try to stop by and eat in one. I will let you know if I do.
      Thank you Miao You for this interesting comment.

  2. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: “The Luxury Strategy: Break the Rules of Marketing to Build Luxury Brands” by J.N. Kapferer & V. Bastien | GlobalEd

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