Ask the pilot

Passengers don't expect to be pampered when they fly. But clean lavatories, more comfortable seats and Wi-Fi wouldn't hurt.

Published July 28, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

To recap from a week ago, America's loathsome giants are beginning to get the message and ratcheting up their service levels. They haven't much choice, frankly, especially with a growing focus on international markets, where, almost without exception, U.S. carriers are heartily outclassed by their foreign competitors. It'll be a long, slow climb, so don't expect hot towels in economy just yet. But if nothing else, the airlines have acknowledged the problem and hope to arrest any further downward slide.

How we got to such a shameful position in the first place is the subject of debate. What are the roots of our problem? The fallout of deregulation? A general decay of the service culture in America? Most folks place the benchmark at or around the moment when President Jimmy Carter attached his signature to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1979. From that moment on, the argument goes, it was a race to the bottom, the new competitive skyscape inspiring a battle so fierce that from the airlines' perspectives, undercutting the competition became more important than pleasing customers. All the while, feisty opportunists like Southwest began to smell blood.

"The general collapse in service did to some extent precede the major advent of low-fare airlines," says Peter Miller, marketing director for SkyTrax. This is a twist of conventional chicken-or-egg wisdom that holds the budget carriers responsible for stealing away millions of passengers merely by dangling cheap tickets, when to some degree business was driven toward them by the incompetence at the old guard. "Even today we come across long-serving middle management at some American carriers," says Miller, "whose mind-set is firmly fixed 20 years ago. There's a general reluctance to accept that benchmarks exist for a reason. It is not just that [foreign] airlines are adhering to newer trends, but consumers themselves are more savvy than ever."

But if you ask me, there's something systemic at hand that transcends the basic profit/performance correlation. The airline business is nothing if not cyclical, and it's easy to assume that with a falloff in profits comes a falloff in the quality of your product. But it's crucial to note that a general decline in service has not necessarily correlated with the industry's bottom line. What we have today is the nadir of a prolonged slide that was ongoing even through the mid-1990s -- the most profitable period for airlines in the history of commercial aviation. Overseas it works much the same way: Many of the most consistently stable carriers, a number of them subsidized by their governments, are among the worst performers. Conversely, financially struggling companies are often able to uphold their reputations. For example, Malaysia Airlines, one of only four names at SkyTrax to maintain a perfect five-star quality ranking, will soon be laying off up to a fifth of its employees in response to intense pressure from low-cost upstart AirAsia.

Looking around the interior of a U.S. jetliner, you'll often see that they are filthy and neglected in ways that minimal upkeep and common sense could remedy. The incentive to pick a gum wrapper off the carpet, wipe away a coffee ring or reattach a piece of molding should have nothing to do with whether the ink is running black or red. For want of a better term, it's a culture thing.

"I suppose the key difference is that many non-U.S. carriers simply will not tolerate sloppy service," submits Miller. "I am sad to say that many U.S. carriers provide their best service on those routes where they have a higher proportion of overseas-based flight attendants."

"Service," of course, is a contextual thing that speaks to its time. Nobody in 2006 is lobbying for a return to the prissy pretensions found aboard planes in decades past. What the airlines haven't quite figured out, and one hopes they will, is that good service needn't be anachronistically elaborate. The average passenger doesn't want or expect to be pampered -- and why should he or she be, when a cross-country ticket costs as little as $99? What a passenger wants and expects are respectful employees, clean facilities, convenience, a modicum of comfort and, what the hell, maybe a dash of flair. Ask a traveler what most disappoints her at 35,000 feet, and the answers consistently focus on the smallest, simplest tangibles: dirty lavatories, water bottles that are too small, broken tray tables, crappy entertainment options. Letters received in response to Part 1 of this series confirm a widespread feeling that airlines are missing the mark:

"For all their billions of dollars spent since the dawn of the jet age," voices one reader, "no commercial airline has yet to achieve the level of comfort and service provided by Starbucks. Setting aside the obvious difference in the seats, Starbucks provides a simple menu of on-the-go food, coffee, water and juice; Internet access; pleasant decor; a bathroom. What else do you really need?"

Plenty would concur. One of the reasons so many people enjoy Lufthansa is because of the in-flight Wi-Fi it provides. For an airline, the key to success is perfecting the art of distraction. Not everyone carries a laptop around, but for those who do, what could be a more useful time killer than the Internet? Even if it weren't free, what would you rather pay a few bucks for -- a cheap plastic headset to watch a rerun of "Everybody Loves Raymond" or, for instance, a chance to peruse the Ask the Pilot archives while high above the Pacific?

Here's another cheap and eminently useful idea: Bring back magazines. The in-house glossy, with its vanilla travelogues and ads for mail-order steaks, is at best mildly useful, so how about a selection of read-and-return magazines like the ones that used to reside in those little cubbyholes in front of the galley? With so much emphasis on video, most of which is unwatchable, what I wouldn't give for the chance to snag a copy of National Geographic or the New Yorker from the rack to help kill a couple of hours. Sure, people are free to bring their own, but having a few on hand would be a nice touch, and a comparatively negligible expense. To think carriers actually went out of their way to remove magazines, while spending tens of millions for in-seat TV, video games and other electronic distractions that we already have too many of. (The preponderance of iPods has made those in-flight audio channels almost totally obsolete.)

As for creature comforts, I've said it before and I'll say it again: The true bane of the economy-class experience is not a lack of pillows, blankets, food or free cocktails. Rather, it's an easily fixable lack of basic ergonomics. A simple resculpting of the flimsy economy-class chair -- it needn't be bigger or wider -- would provide immensely more comfort. All we ever hear about is legroom, legroom, legroom. What many of us would really like is a way to elevate our legs, not stretch them out. And don't get me started on armrests and neck support.

A number of carriers have come out with enhanced, cabin-within-a-cabin economy-class quarters that provide added space. United, for example, calls its version "economy plus." Few or no hardware changes are involved; basically, a limited number of rows are spaced farther apart than usual, and the fares are jacked up. The trouble with these concepts is that economy plus is still economy. The seats themselves aren't any different, and that's most of the problem. It's a radical idea, but on medium or shorter hauls, I'd advocate the abolishment of traditional class distinctions as they exist today. I'd go with a cabin that is 50 percent coach, more or less as we know it, at the same deeply discounted fares, and 50 percent of a whole new concept -- a coach-business hybrid that is light on the fancies, but with decent, streamlined amenities and comfortable, high-tech seats.

And here is a bit of advice for airlines to ignore at their own peril: If you're going to do something, don't be half-assed about it. Certain small touches might seem frivolous, but in fact they are meaningful statements about attitude and commitment. If you're making a point of keeping pillows aboard your aircraft, they should be useful pillows. Flying across the Atlantic on Air France, economy-class passengers get a comfortable feather pillow wrapped in attractive blue cloth. It's a small and presumably inexpensive item, but it's a nice one. On an American carrier, assuming there are pillows at all, they tend to be tiny hunks of foam with coverings so flimsy that they tear apart like tissue paper. Thanks for nothing. Or, if you're going to offer gratis cocktails, be dignified about it, and don't, as one airline does, precede the meal service with a stern-sounding public address announcement reminding people that your generosity extends only to "one, and one only, beverage per passenger." The problem isn't the one-drink rule itself, but the idea of scolding people about it as if they were children. The message -- one that no airline should ever dispense to its customers -- seems to be, "We're doing you a favor and you'd better be grateful."

None of the above should be terribly difficult for an airline to provide, but I'll be the first to admit that certain things make it harder than it needs to be. For one, the air travel experience encompasses more than just a ride on a plane. The experience does not begin and end at the boarding door. It begins and ends at the airport, and a lot of what travelers encounter there is beyond any carrier's control. I'm largely talking about security, yes, and its multitude of accompanying hassles, elucidated in this column many, many times.

And although it will sound hackneyed, it's also patently true that passenger allegiance is ultimately earned or squandered not through physical comforts but through the attentiveness and dedication of an airline's employees. I'll never say that anybody else's job in this mad business is an easy one, but if workers cannot muster the necessary levels of commitment, then something is systemically wrong and needs to be fixed before any of the rest will matter. Free drinks, on-demand video and a decent meal are welcome amenities, it's true. But they're all for naught when I'm dying of thirst in the middle of an overnight flight, unable to get one of those too-small bottles of water because the flight attendants have spent the past four hours gossiping in the galleys and ignoring the passengers.

It dawned on me as this two-part story was in the final stages of prep that of all the airline representatives I spoke with, only one -- James Boyd from Singapore Airlines -- reflected on the human aspect of passenger service. Everybody else focused on the values of seat recline, video and food. Such perks are what they are, but an airline's most valuable service asset is the professionalism, grace and courtesy of its staff. Yet, tellingly, nobody except Singapore had anything to say about this.

In an industry where the average is six weeks, Singapore Airlines flight attendants endure five months of schooling. That is considerably longer than pilot training at most carriers.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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