Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



January 1, 1988 -- With all the recent overheated rhetoric about airline service, much of it deserved, I feel compelled to add my two cents. While there’s little doubt that deregulation and its inevitable off-spring, merger mania, are responsible for much of the consumer trauma, let me throw in one slight caveat here: namely, that the media that has only recently discovered that the airlines make damn good copy.

("Airline bashing" is what Randy Malin, executive vice president-marketing for USAir, calls this activity.)

Back to service. Service has been my battle cry since we launched Frequent Flyer back in 1980—and well before then. I’ve written, nay preached, ad nauseam, that the attitude, the mood created inflight, is the critical factor in determining the passengers’ flight experience. Give me a friendly crew, a polite caring cocoon in which to pass those encapsulated hours, and very little else matters. Give me service and the rest of the equation comes into balance.

The late great hotelier Conrad Hilton used to say that the three factors in a hotel’s success were location, location, and location. I’d like to amend Mr. Hilton’s catchy catechism for all service industries, not only hotels, but airlines, et al. Today’s trinity has to be service, service, service.

Since last fall, the Department of Transportation has jumped into the act with its on-time performance and other service-related reports, but not before consumers, including members of Congress, began to howl in anguish. But even before DOT and the public got into the act, airlines were making yeoman strides in improving the service environment. Those of us who fly as a way of life needed a break, believe me.

The most noticeable improvements included on-time departures and arrivals. The carriers, just about universally, started the boarding process as much as thirty minutes before the posted time, making every effort to pull away from the gate at the witching hour. And usually with unaccustomed success. Not surprisingly, the on-time arrival performance improved proportionately, if not dramatically. I made some fifty flights, domestic and international, long- and short-haul, between mid-August and mid-November last year—the arrival record was virtually spotless. We were early more often than late. What was happening was obvious and predictable. The airlines were not only getting the message, but they were assiduously trying to head off any serious legislative interference: they did not and do not want reregulation in any form.

The new attitude also showed up with respect to the agents on the phone at the ticket counters, at the gates and inflight. Where did the airlines suddenly find these friendly, concerned, helpful people? Even in coach on totally sold-out flights. A sudden climb in employee morale of this magnitude can only work its way down from the top—a welcome and overdue development, whatever the motivation in the executive suites.

The food, well, what is there to say? It’s still airline food. But I do find that some of the simpler meal options—pastas, sandwiches, or salads—comprise a change for the better.

Now that it’s Nirvana in the skies, or on the ground, by any means. Airport crowds, long check-in lines, luggage delays, skimpy space for carry-on bags, and escalating fares, especially for the full-fare business traveler, will continue to be with us. So will the occasional scowl or frown and the ulcer-inducing delay. Hubbing is also a great inconvenience, particularly for the frequent flyer. Peak-hour scheduling, mechanical delays, weather, and a creaky air traffic system all remain with us. And as passengers we’ll all be able to cite countless war stories, and that won’t change. There will always be times when the call button won’t work, or the flight attendants won’t wither. There’ll be broken audio and movie systems, and the blankets will be gone.

Nonetheless, at least for now, the domestic airlines are making commendable strides in service, service, service.

While this is out January issue, it is distributed in late December, giving us at Frequent Flyer the chance to extend to each and every one of you, readers and advertisers, our warmest best wished for a joyous holiday season and a healthy, happy, and prosperous 1988.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.