When You Think of Bitter, Who Comes to Mind?

Seth Godin wrote a powerful post today on generosity. And I wasn’t surprised that the single example he used to illustrate the opposite of generosity was airlines.

And the killer of generosity is bitterness. You may have noticed while traveling on airlines like American that many of the employees you encounter act as though they’re trapped. Trapped by a race to the bottom in efficiency, trapped by a long history of bureaucracy that offers no control and no room for humanity. In those situations, it’s easy to give up, to shrug one’s shoulders and to soldier on, just doing your job. It’s not surprising, then, that any attempt at organizational kindness instead feels like a poorly constructed marketing come-on, not the human act of generosity we seek.

I experienced this bitterness recently on US Airways when a flight attendant barked at me about where I wanted to place my carry-on. As I obediently did what she demanded and then sat down, I thought about why I felt so rotten. Was I really wrong to want to place my bag one row in front of my seat instead of one row behind? I was one of the first people onboard, so space was not lacking. On the other hand, what she instructed me to do was not unreasonable. I realized it was the way she said it. A generous flight attendant could have accomplished the same thing, but made me feel good about it.

I love Seth’s final line:

We long to connect, all of us. We long to be noticed, to be cared for, to matter. Generosity is the invisible salve on our wound of loneliness, one that benefits both sides, over and over again.

It’s good to remember that no matter what our job, each interaction is an opportunity to connect generously with someone, to help them know they matter.

Airfares: What I’m Willing to Pay More For and Not (You’re certain to disagree with one.)

People who whine bother me. And I hear too much whining about ancillary fees. I believe the unbundling of airfares that occurred in the last few years has been a brilliant development. Airlines are finally gaining some financial stability (which benefits passengers), and passengers continue to enjoy low base fares. It makes perfect sense to me that we only pay for what’s important to us.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be on the inaugural flight of American Airlines’ new A321T service between SFO and JFK. (You can read my trip report on The Bay Area Traveler here.) I sat in first class on the way out, and business class on the way back. I am most often a back-of-the-bus passenger, so this was a real treat. And this aircraft and its inflight service is lovely and amenity-heavy. The trip caused me to think about which features on a flight are of particular value to me. (A caveat: I am not a natural spender, whether or not the fare is being footed by me or the company.)

What I’m willing to pay more for:

1. A seat with a view. My flying life changed a few years ago when I switched from being an aisle person to a window person. Previously a stressed passenger all too aware of flying in an aluminum box, I became a relaxed spectator as the amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty moved by. My claustrophobia eased by having a big space to look at over my shoulder. AA’s A321T first class seat is fabulous, don’t get me wrong, and it’s hard to complain about a ginormous seat that is both window and aisle. The first class 1-1 configuration is pure indulgence. But the seat is so darn huge, and the window so far away, that I could hardly see out: the horizon, perhaps, but certainly nothing below the plane. (Apologies: perhaps I’m whining.) In economy, I am happy to pay more for a seat with a good view.

2. Early boarding. Thanks to the relatively recent development of fistfights over carry-on space, I appreciate the knowledge that I don’t have to concern myself with the possibility of gate-checking my bag. An additional perk: Not having to climb over someone (most times) adds to the illusion that I’m having some kind of civilized experience.

3. Personal attention. I appreciate being called by name and having a pleasant chat here and there with the crew in the premium cabins. I hope that’s not my ego talking, but just my human-ness. I wish we could have this option for a fee in coach. Human interaction can make or break an inflight experience for me. Occasionally and randomly, it comes free of charge.

4. Continuous wine pour. I don’t want to sound like I have a drinking problem, but there’s something I like about wine service in the premium classes. It’s certainly not the wine itself. But to have a glass refilled generously without paying feels a bit like I’m at someone’s house and my thoughtful hostess is keeping me comfortable. I realize this is, again, only an illusion, but it’s one I welcome.

What I won’t pay more for:

1. Food. I really don’t care about eating on a plane anymore. I always pack healthy snacks (and meals sometimes), and I like that the new normal requires that I do so. My first class and business meals on the A321T were decent, and there’s something nice about being offered food. But really, I’d rather not. I like healthy, well prepared food choices. And even the best airplane food isn’t tempting enough to make it matter.

2. Entertainment. I have to admit, the jury may be out on this one. The premium cabins on the A321T service have deep choice in their inflight entertainment systems. And I liked getting caught up on things with the “still in theaters” category. But then I didn’t get a speck of work done during my SFO-JFK-SFO trip, and I cracked nary a book. While the entertainment is pleasant, I’m not sure I like that. Perhaps I just need more self-discipline. Something’s wrong when you wish for a moment that the flight were longer so you could catch another movie.

3. The seat. I know I am in the minority on this one—in fact, I’m perhaps the only person on the planet who doesn’t care about seat pitch or recline (exception: a red eye or international flight at night). My legs are short and stretch nicely out in front of me. My rear must be average, because I have a few inches of comfortable air space on either side of me in even the smallest seat. I don’t see what the big deal is for someone my size to sit in a typical airplane seat for five or more hours. A business class seat or better is totally wasted on me. My feet do not reach the ottoman. The recline functions just leave me fiddling with the adjustments—because I can–and usually to no avail, comfort-wise. When my status allows me a free seat in premium economy, I couldn’t care less about the leg room. (But I do like the early boarding, as noted above. Also, sitting in the front of the plane helps me feel less like I’m in a mass experience. If you can’t see those other 200 people, they aren’t there, right?)

Every individual on every flight values a different set of offerings. I love that we pay for what we value. But airlines, please, let’s not get carried away and over-marketize this concept. American’s economy fares are now listed in categories from cheapest to most expensive, named like this:  Choice, Choice Essential, and Choice Plus. With Choice, you get nothing. That feels a little offensive to me, not much of a choice (or with another meaning, not exactly a “choice” option). If you’re giving me nothing but the seat, let’s call it like it is.

What do you value most or least in an inflight experience? (Come on, I know you tall people will have a bone to pick with my willingness to give up leg room….)

When Cheerless Flight Attendants Offer Cheerful Greetings

Yesterday I came across a when-the-marketing-department-goes-too-far term: branded salutation. In a blog post this week, Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist who focuses on the science behind learning, writes that Walgreens employees have been instructed to complete customer transactions with the branded salutation, “Thank you and be well.” Huh? A Walgreens public relations comment notes the purpose of the script is to align the employee communication with the company’s goals.

Noble thought. That doesn’t work. The branded salutation falls flat because there is another piece of alignment to consider. According to Paul, research indicates that when there is not alignment between the scripts given to employees and how employees are actually feeling, the result is toxic. She says social scientists call this surface acting:

Surface acting is when front line service employees, the ones who interact directly with customers, have to appear cheerful and happy even when they’re not feeling it. This kind of faking is hard work—sociologists call it “emotional labor”—and research shows that it’s often experienced as stressful. It’s psychologically and even physically draining; it can lead to lowered motivation and engagement with work, and ultimately to job burnout.

I suspect surface acting is toxic not just for the employee, but also for the customer.

The customer-facing segment of the travel business is all about hospitality, and hospitality is built around warm welcomes, something not well faked. Here’s an example of a hotel company that “gets” authentic service.

But in the airline business, a large number of customer-facing employees (think flight attendants) have been beaten down by decades of rancorous labor disputes and increasingly exhausting job demands. Yet customers and management expect them to exude warmth and friendliness. (For the record, many do.) United has even built its brand DNA around the friendly skies.

The next time you board a plane, notice which flight attendants standing in the galley and greeting you are surface acting and which truly mean their “Welcome aboard.” I will be feeling more compassion for those who exude surliness, perhaps forced to do the emotional labor of acting cheerful when not.

Southwest Airlines puts civility back into boarding

In the last month, I have had occasion to fly Southwest eight times, unusual because I have always disliked WN and do everything in my power to avoid it. My distaste, I recently realized, has been based primarily on open seating. Everyone has their airline hot button, the factor that provokes a guttural reaction, and for me, it’s seat selection.

This comes after too many years of transcon flights when my kids were babies and toddlers, a time when seating security–knowing exactly where we were sitting and the configuration–reduced onboard stress.  (For years my husband and I sat 2/2 behind each other so that our then-toddler could kick the seat of his older brother sitting in front of him, instead of some kind but easily irritated stranger.)

Southwest, despite pressure from loyal fans/customers to switch to assigned seating, has repeatedly recommitted to its open seating policy based on cost/efficiency savings. (Remember, WN is a low-cost, not low-fare, airline.) But what they have done very smartly is to evolve the process so that open seating has become painless. Remember the days when you received a plastic boarding pass at the gate, which determined when you could board and scramble for a seat? Fast forward to a seamless and well-organized A, B and C-group assignment given at online checkin, with options for Early Bird Check-In for a fee and A-group assignments for A-List (elite) Rapid Rewards members and certain business fares. Once you have your group letter and number, clear and simple signage and announcements get everyone lined up in a fast and efficient way. Passengers know the process (it’s easy even for first-timers) and the mood at the gate is relaxed and “luv-ly.”

Legacy carriers, meanwhile, have commoditized  seat selection. Getting an aisle or window seat without paying an ancillary fee has become an art. And messy boarding processes have heightened the stressful fight for overhead bin space. Airlines have experimented with myriad boarding procedures, leaving passengers confused about how boarding will occur (and how your group number is determined) and jockeying for position at the gate. My favorite trick (and it’s appalling that I’ve even devised such a trick)  is to begin the boarding process to the side of the gate agent, where I can slip in first for my group without appearing ruthless.

This new chaos at legacy carrier gates, ironically, has put Southwest back in my good graces because it has created a trusted, less stressful boarding environment. On Southwest, I have options for bettering my boarding position so once onboard I can choose a great seat. I know what to expect at the gate. And so do my fellow passengers. I had to laugh recently when I saw United had introduced group boarding lanes at SFO gates, not unlike Southwest’s.  The tides have changed, and I now call myself a Southwest fan (as long as I can control my position in the A group).