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Flying high in the sky but stuck on ground
Almost all airlines in the country are running a race to the bottom when it comes to providing customer care. Carriers need to invest meaningfully in building a customer-oriented culture
Recently, a private airline passenger had to face a body blow situation. The passenger allegedly ‘abused’ the ground staff. This was enough provocation for the IndiGo airline ground staff to get even with the passenger and settle scores, as it were. The staff pulled the passenger, over powered and pinned him to the ground. A hard landing indeed for the hapless passenger concerned. We do not know what happened next. All this spectacle took place in a ‘live’ airside environment. As if the incidents of stray dogs, birds menace on the runway was not enough, we have fists, punches and blows too flying in the air. The razzmatazz around the airline brand vanished in one swoop by actions of its ground personnel. For millions of airline passengers in the country, it was a shared feeling of humiliation and hurt, at a personal level.
Customer service is supposedly the holygrail — the airlines industry swears by it. Passengers more often swear at it. You name any domestic airline today — most frequent fliers would have their own glum stories to narrate about the much-touted ‘customer service’. Largely robotic responses and hollow greetings makes the whole flying experience depressing.
In the last decade, the aviation environment in the country has witnessed a sea change. Bigger and glitzy airports opened. Airport’s passenger handling capacity increased by many folds. Newer airlines took to the sky. Millions of people started to fly. Suddenly, the Indian middle class achieved the altitude long deprived to it.
Common man’s expectation from this flight of fancy in plain vanilla terms is only to reach his destination safely, with little fuss. As such, Indian passenger is largely agnostic to his rights and privileges. Passengers stamina and endurance undergoes several levels of rigorous physiological and psychological tests at the airports and his patience needs equal commendation. It is quite common for most of us to experience delays on the runway, with aircraft still cued for take-off, well past the scheduled time of departure, apparently due to factors beyond anybody’s control. One is left wondering at such asynchronicity in a sector that prides itself on meticulous and machine like precision.
In such situations, adding insult to the injury are the cockpit announcement regarding flight delays. The crew chooses semantics rather than plain speak to outwit the ‘cattle class’ passengers. The icing on the cake is when departure related delay announcement is carefully worded and read as — ‘we are delayed by four-five minutes’. To repeat: It is ‘four’ pause ‘five’ minutes, and not full ‘forty-five’ minutes of delay! Guess, such contrived announcements is another ploy practiced to soften the blow on the ‘cattle class’ passengers’ already tattered nerves.
When flights take off on time — you settle in your seat and want nothing but perhaps the (obsessively measured) less-than-half-a-glass of free water served to you, and you wish to be left in peace for the rest of the duration of flight. But wait, the rituals will begin shortly. After the safety instructions, it is time for the charm offensive and pompous self-gloating. You are greeted with some chirpy opening lines from the flight deck and then the long list of grandiose announcements follow on the ‘great service’ you are going to enjoy and some statements akin to ‘we-are-a-gift-of-god-to-humanity’, ‘lucky-you-for-flying-with-us’ etc. The ‘bragathon’ doesn’t end there, the overly patronizing and high decibel, unmodulated and lumpy announcements keeps hitting at you at regular intervals during the entire duration of the flight, reminding you to save your computer files before closing your laptop and some such other useful instructions for the benefit of passengers. By now your ears have turned crimson red and you are grinding your teeth. Is there any limit on the airtime you can use while aboard?
The holier-than-thou attitude is replete in the customer service dished out at the airport by the airlines. No sincere apologies for flight delays and god forbid if you are late by few seconds at the gates. You will be treated to a deadpan look. You will be ignored. The doors will close on your face and you get that blurry, disoriented feeling as you miss the ‘coach’ at the gates by a whisker. Many aged, infirm and confused travelers, struggling to find their way at glitzy airports, have fallen off the passenger list, with no compassion or empathy shown by the staff at the gates. Time is of paramount importance for everybody, including airlines. However, if it doesn’t hurt much, a small discretionary mercy shown occasionally, to a hapless and genuine passenger, would have saved a marriage, a job or someone’s life.
The mindlessness of the act to deny a passenger boarding because he or she is unfortunately late at the gates by a minute here and there while negotiating the vast labyrinths of the now mostly crowded and ubiquitous ‘international’ airports, makes it even more appalling. Even when the staff can be seen to easily accommodate such cases, they seldom act in compassion. The customer is dropped from the passenger list, he has lost money and time, he is taught a lesson, he is now stuck, and left to pay through his nose and purchase another ticket.
You get spammed with overzealous SMSs soliciting feedback after each flight. But the same SMS doesn’t seem to possibly reach you when the flight is delayed and you are still stuck at the airport.
The other generosity inflicted upon the hassled passengers are the ‘silent’ airports. How many of us habitually head to an airport for practicing meditation? ‘Silent’ airport is a very posh sounding proposition much like the western style water dispensers installed at our airports, the symbolism of which seems completely out of touch with the Indian realities and cocks a snook at the Indian passengers.
The absurdity of this pretentious fad is that you are more likely to see the airline staff yelling passenger’s names feverishly on top of the voice, while the airport seems to be decidedly a ‘silent’ airport with no announcements. How is that customer friendly? Or even information friendly? The incident that happened with the IndiGo airline passenger is just a microcosm and should to be seen in the overall disconnect and the deplorable state of customer service standards in the aviation industry with mere platitudes being on offer to the consumer.
Aviation revolution in the country has heralded rapid growth and provided all round economic development and created many jobs. Unfortunately, air travel has become nightmarish and stressful in recent times. Situations such as the one that occurred should be avoided at any cost and touch points in the customer journey should be made seamless and stress-free. There are still a lot of friction points and they need to be carefully examined and removed lest it becomes counterproductive for the airports and airlines both in the long run. Customer service is not a chore nor a rote standard operating procedure. It is a passion and commitment, where you step forward and put excellence into the job every single day and in every single transaction with the customer.
Declining standards in customer service in the domestic aviation industry is a worrying concern. The need is to move way from hollow symbolisms and rebooting the customer service orientation among the staff. The biggest priority for the airlines should be to destress the passengers and provide them with genuine, humane and dignified treatment always. Unfortunately, the domestic airline industry is seen reducing the experience to some sort of a dry check-list drill.
(The writer is a communications professional and an aviation enthusiast)
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