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Road Warrior: Are You Measuring the Right Things?

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By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: September 2, 2008

I haven't done one of these travel posts for a while, but I just can't help myself. Last week I had to go to a major midwestern city on US Airways, and had virtually the same experience I wrote about in 2006, without the exciting hotel stay. It's amazing how many everyday events have lessons for business owners and managers. My latest trip was packed with them.

At the heart of the problem is they way performance is measured. US Airways is obviously measuring performance based on the on-time departure record of its flights. It's clear that it's more important that planes leave on time and the presence of ticketed passengers, even when they are in the terminal, is optional.

The incoming plane for my flight to Philadelphia was 20 minutes late getting in from Charlotte, but we boarded quickly and left the gate that same 20 minutes late. Then we had a runway hold that made us 45 minutes late. Providence to Philadelphia is a very short flight, with scheduled time being far greater than the actual flying time. Minor delays should not be an issue, and there is always time for connections. We landed 20 minutes late, making up some of the delay, and then just sat on the runway. When we started to move to our gate, it was very slow. I got off the plane five minutes before my connection in an adjacent terminal. Good thing I'm in pretty good shape, so I ran with my bags to my connecting flight's gate and when I got there, I was told the door was closed. I had arrived before the flight time, as had others. My plane had been on the ground for a good 20 minutes or so. US Airways knew that it had connecting passengers. Tough. The next flight was six hours later. I was dispatched to customer service. What should have been a 5 hour total trip including connections was now more than doubling in length, and I was missing my dinner appointment, despite allowing what I thought was plenty of buffer time for a flight delay.

I was given a new ticket there, along with the other passengers heading to the same city. Their score on the contrition or empathy meters were zero. I seemed to be the only one who asked for a food voucher, and got $10. They never volunteer one. I asked for a day pass to the US Airways Club: no such luck. So I went to eat, and then then headed to the Club. I inquired about day pass rate, and was told it was $40. Good thing I had my Priority Pass with me which got me in for $28. If you're not familiar with Priority Pass, it gets you into numerous airline clubs on a per visit basis for just $99 a year.

Philadelphia has one of the nicer US Airways Clubs. It's very large and has two rooms of cubicles allowing some privacy for work. They do not have free wi-fi; you need a $9.99 day pass from T-Mobile. Service was bad no matter where I moved in the Club. (T-Mobile recently lost its exclusive contract with Starbucks; I always had connection problems at those locations as well, on multiple computers and operating systems). The signal was constantly turning on and off, and I was unable to download a 15mb audio file during my four or so hour stay there. The highest the download ever got was to 60% before it would stop, but it usually never got past 20%. We were getting so close, only to fall into our dark gloom yet again.

While I was there, I wrote about my plight on the US Airways “feedback” page. I always like when companies use euphemisms for what things really are. It's a complaint, plain and simple. I thought it was funny that the box to write the complaint in was so small, but it did scroll, a feature that became important as I went on.

My flight that evening was, thankfully, uneventful. I got to my hotel, settling in 8 hours later than planned, and too late for dinner. I checked my e-mail, and US Airways sent me a $125 voucher on a future flight. Future flights don't help me. Just think: it would have been cheaper to give me a US Airways Club day pass which does not have any substantial cost to it. Free wi-fi, as a standard service, or as a voucher would have been handy too. A future flight discount voucher does not help when business people need to make up for their time lost right at that moment. It's a hollow gesture when something more meaningful with less total cost could have greater and more positive impact. While business travelers are always prepared for delays, recognizing the importance of their time is a clue as to can be offered to minimize the ill will. They know that many if not most of the vouchers will never be used. The accountants are happy; the passengers are not. The response said “It is not our intent to create difficulties for our customers and realize that flight delays are very frustrating for everyone involved. We work hard to avoid these situations; however, safety considerations must remain our number one priority.” Safety? Did I mention safety? What does safety have to do with holding a plane for connecting passengers? The airline didn't make the connection, physically or intellectually. It ended with the usual heartfelt “We know that you have many choices when it comes to traveling and we thank you for choosing US Airways.”

My Priority Pass came in handy the next day, too. The NorthWest Airlines club I was in had free wi-fi and it was rock solid. The Club was busy but clean and efficient, with plenty of room for everyone, though packed with travelers.

My return trip to Philadelphia was fine until we landed. It caught my attention when the pilot said "I've never seen anything like this before." Ground control was merging planes going to and from their gates with those lining up for gates or for takeoff into one very very single long line. We were getting perilously close to my connecting flight's departure time. We used almost the entire time alloted for the connection sitting in line and inching to our gate. For one of the few times in my travel career, it seemed, my departure gate was within sight of my arrival gate; I still had to run. They were announcing final boarding, and it was clear they weren't going to wait. Again, the plane must leave on time, but the passengers don't have to.

This was my first trip since US Airways started charging $15 for the first bag. Basic economics tells you that when you start charging for something that used to be free, or had unseen or bundled costs, you will get less of that behavior, and perhaps get something worse. It was the first time that I had traveled with a carry-on full of clothes in perhaps ten years. Others were doing the same thing. Three of my flights were on Embraer 170 jets. The overhead bins filled quickly, and there were still passengers left to board. It also meant that many bags would not fit on the plane, and then i realized what was happening. The new “system” became clear: overpack your carry-on bag so there was no way it would fit in the smaller overhead bin of this model plane. A flight attendant will tag it and have it loaded into the cargo bin, and there won't be a bag charge. On one of the flights they even had gate attendants taking bags from passengers before they even boarded if it was clear that they would not fit in the bins. It looked to me that travelers had figured it out quite well, bringing bags they knew would not fit to the gate. In economics, it's all about incentives, and it's clear that avoiding the fee changes passenger behavior.

Do your business' "rules" or performance measures or pricing create systematic unintended consequences? For example, does your company focus on the number of sales calls per day rather than finding the right accounts and penetrating into their business? Do you build a process of warm referrals rather than cold calls? Do you measure activity rather than results, when it's the results that matter most? Are there procedures and policies in one department's performance measurement that make that department look good but make it hard for other departments to get their own jobs done? Do some functions have to sneak around someone else's bureaucratic demands to be productive?

When things go wrong, do you know what will result in the best and quickest rebuilding of goodwill and maintain a desire to still do business with you? Not having a problem is the best way to retain business, but innovative resolution of problems can build business by demonstrating loyalty and insight into what your customer feels is important. When you apologize, especially in text form, do you mean it, or is it just trite boilerplate stuff that you copy and paste to everyone?

I happened to be sitting next to a former commercial pilot on my flight home to Providence, and we got to chatting. He said that when he worked for a major airline he once had 20 people coming to his flight from another city. Their plane had landed and was on the ground, but they were not at their gate because of ground traffic. He was co-piloting the flight, the last one out for the day to their destination, and they were told to close up and pull out from the gate. They did. He turned to the pilot, and said “isn't the light for the cargo bay on? I don't think it was locked properly.” The pilot looked at the panel: every light was off. He said “yeah, I see that; we'd better get back to the gate to find out why that light won't turn off.” The pilot smirked as he asked for clearance to return to the gate so the cargo door could be manually inspected and the proper forms filled out. Their ruse satisfied the bureaucracy beasts and let 20 or so people get home that night when they would have otherwise spent the night at the airport or in awful airport hotels.

I've been on many flights where it was announced "we're waiting for connecting passengers," especially when it was the last flight out to that city for the day. I've never minded because it always affirmed the importance of getting passengers to their destination as a priority. It somewhat nice to see breathless passengers (often a bit embarrassed that they held everyone else up) getting onto their flights with smiles of delighted relief that they had made their flight home. I knew that there might be a time when I could be one of them.

Traveling with a computer on some of today's smaller jets can be a problem. The Embraer 170 is a bit cramped. For this trip, I was prepared. I was traveling with two computers, my old Averatec with the 12" screen and my new Asus 900 Eee with the 9" screen. The Asus runs Linux, and I "hacked" it to run a version of Ubuntu that was customized for it, along with CrossOver Linux software that lets me run needed Windows software without having to load Windows. The Averatec could not fit on my tray when the passenger in front of me leaned their seat back. It was a bit difficult even when they had the seat upright. The Asus Eee made the limited space workable and the time productive. I'll be traveling with both computers often. But don't look for me on US Airways; the experience affirms that avoiding the opportunity to use my voucher may be a more valuable reward.

Added 9/3: Good article about discouraged customers.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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