SFO–TPE, or 777s and a Flat World

Saturday I attended a ceremony to send off United Airlines’ inaugural flight from San Francisco to Taipei. It was a party! United decorated the boarding area with paper lanterns and served dim sum and Chinese-style coffee, while brightly costumed characters circulated. United and airport brass spoke, shook hands and maximized photo ops.

Introducing a route like SFO-TPE is more than a marketing play: It’s an economic and political event. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee spoke and, with seemingly genuine affection, reminded the audience that Taipei and San Francisco are sister cities. The two cities’ and nations’ economies will be greased by expanded air service between them, he said. (SFO-TPE was already served by EVA Air, which is based in Taiwan, China Airlines, US Airways/American and Delta.)

That day, the plane was full, and passengers ranged from business celebrities to just plain folks on vacation (or so I surmise). Mayor Lee planned to travel on the flight but had to back out when he came down with a cold: doctor’s orders. No doubt many passengers were unaware this was an inaugural flight until they arrived at the gate party.

I too often take for granted the fact that air travel fuels our international economy. This event reminded me that the world would not be flat if it weren’t for hundreds of 777s cruising the heavens every day.

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.

Wi-Fi in the Friendly Skies

If you’re a frequent traveler and I tell you I’m writing this on a United Airlines flight with Wi-Fi, then you won’t be surprised when I tell you I did a little happy dance this morning. (This is a figurative happy dance, of course: Even Economy Plus wouldn’t have the legroom for an actual jig. Wi-Fi on United.) Apparently, I scored one of only 103 aircraft in the United fleet that is currently Wi-Fi-equipped. Incidentally, my A320 was also outfitted with UA’s new seat design, which I found comfortable and smart.

United was one of the very last airlines to join the Wi-Fi party, a fact their management has spun as a plus: “We were able to leapfrog over old, land-based technology.” According to United’s website, domestic flights with Wi-Fi use Gogo, the largest industry’s provider, but I did not see the Gogo branding so prevalent on other airlines. United also boasts that it was the first airline to use satellite service, enabling full connectivity on transoceanic flights.

The cost of my San Francisco to Chicago service was $9.99, which seemed a fair price. The cost is computed based on length of flight, though exactly how this calculation is arrived at is not disclosed. United has a neat perk for Mileage Plus members: You can switch devices without paying extra. I’m not sure why you’d need that, but it’s the first I’ve seen of this option.

Gogo-branded Wi-Fi on other airlines uses a similar sliding fee, with transcontinental flights coming in at up to $26. (Tip: Buy a pass online before flying for $14. Other insights on Wi-Fi from business travel writer Chris McGinnis are here.) The best Wi-Fi value, though, is $8 on Southwest, and it’s good for a 24-hour period. Since my last excursion on Southwest involved three flights in one day, that setup made all the difference.

While inflight usage is reported low (I’ve seen estimates at 8 to 13 percent of passengers on any given flight where Wi-Fi is available), when you need it, you need it. Like today, for me. Yes, I occasionally breathe a guilty sigh of relief when I get on a plane without it. “Gosh, I’d like to work, but I guess I’ll need to read this novel instead.” But when the stars align–a deadline looms, it’s a long flight, and I spot the Wi-Fi logo as I board–well, it’s time to log on at 10,000 feet.

Post Script: If you’re a frequent traveler and I tell you I’m writing this on a United Airlines flight with Wi-Fi…then you won’t be surprised to learn that the system failed as I wrote the last paragraph. WordPress hadn’t saved most of the post, and I was forced to rewrite after landing. Sigh.