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A "Changed" Customer Experience?

Posted by: Jena McGregor on July 20, 2007

Ok, this is a little off-topic for a management post, but it’s Friday, so hear me out. I just got a call from my husband, Brian, who is sitting at JFK airport watching Port Authority of New York police practically drag a customer off a Delta Airlines flight to Seattle. The flight, which was supposed to leave at 8:45 this morning (my husband had to leave Connecticut at 5 AM to make it), was delayed inexplicably by three hours and is oversold. Brian was one of the bumped passengers. He “bought” his ticket using his hard-earned SkyMiles, and in logic only an airline executive could defend, his loyalty was rewarded with a decrease in his status on the who-to-bump pecking order. In addition, two passengers on his flight were given the same exact seat and allowed to board the plane. Neither one would budge an inch, and police had to be called in to resolve the situation.

Since Delta emerged from bankruptcy, it has proudly been trumpeting itself as “The New Delta.” It has a new logo and a new advertising campaign titled “Change,” which was announced in a press release that quoted Delta Vice President Tim Mapes. “Delta is changing the travel experience for our worldwide customers,” Mapes said, “with tangible benefits including industry-leading in-flight entertainment, signature cocktails and time-saving self-service technology.”

Oh, goody. If Brian ever gets on a flight, he’ll get his pick of fruity cocktails or bad movies he can view on a seatback that’s six inches from the end of his nose. But in my book, “changing” the customer experience involves things that really matter to customers, like not being punished for your loyalty or actually giving customers what they pay for: A seat.

At the risk of this sounding like a personal tirade (I’m afraid it already does), customer experience is a topic I cover at BusinessWeek, which includes shepherding our new annual Customer Service Champions awards. While we made the extraordinarily difficult decision to remove JetBlue Airways from our list this year given its complete operational meltdown in February, there are so many things JetBlue does right for its customers—not least of which is its policy against overbooking.

I know there is some kind of complex load-factor explanation for why airlines oversell their flights (I cover management, not airlines). But something tells me innovative thinkers could make up the revenue in other ways. Given the industry’s near lock-step adherence to the practice, I’d happily pay a nominal extra fee to guarantee I wouldn’t be bumped. Or, I’d understand if the airline hit me with an even bigger charge for missing a flight—it’s my responsibility to get there on time. At the very least, tell me if I’m booking a flight that’s already oversold, and that I’m running a risk by purchasing that ticket. Sheer knowledge goes a long way in earning a customer’s trust.

Reader Comments

John A. Byrne

July 20, 2007 2:45 PM

This is one of many reasons why I am a complete JetBlue fan. It's the only airline, as far as I know, that will never bump you from a flight because it never oversells the seats on its planes. What a concept.


July 23, 2007 8:45 AM


Hope your husband got home by now! And I hope he didn't pay Delta any more of his or the company's hard earned money.

From my personal experience only, Delta costs more yet has less leg room and consistently shown worse service than a discount airline called AirTran. They both are headquartered in Atlanta but that's about the only thing they have in common. Why people continue to put up with poor/atrocious service is beyond me. I've never been bumped before but it would be my last with that airline, loyalty travel points or not.


Jena McGregor

July 23, 2007 8:55 AM

Thanks, Thomas. After Delta bumped him and couldn't get him on another flight for 7 more hours, turns out Brian didn't take the trip after all, as the meetings he needed to attend were that same afternoon. I have flown AirTran myself and have had both great and terrible experiences, which has pretty much been my experience with most airlines.


July 30, 2007 12:03 AM

The business model goes something like this: probability based on sound statistical study shows that a certain percentage of passengers on every flight don't make it on board on time. Because an empty seat, even if paid for, is wasted resources, the airline ain't no fool letting it go to waste. A 10% no-show on a 200 seats flight means selling twice the 20 seats translating into doubling-up your profit. If the average price is $300/seat, that's $6000 on top of the $6000 = $12,000. Ain't too bad for paying gas and the tires. Notice that the airline will not refund the ticket price to the passengers who didn't make the flight even though it had resold the same seat and suffered no loss.

Imagine this: you charged by phone a birthday cake but forgot to pick it up. The bakery then sold it at the last minute before closing because you obviously won't be able to arrive on time. Next day, you demand a refund.

Bakery: "But Lady, we had to sell your cake because it was closing time and you didn't show up.
Lady: "OK, then, you sold my cake and you made your money. So, return my money."
Bakery: "But had we not sell the cake. It would have spoiled so that's why we sold your cake."
Lady: "So you profited twice. There's something wrong with what you're doing."
Bakery: "No, not at all. The airlines do it all the time."

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