Skift Take

Why is there often a lag between the service airlines promise and what they deliver? And how can it be fixed?

The Skift Airline Innovation Report is our weekly newsletter focused on the business of airline innovation. We will look closely at the technological, financial, and design trends at airlines and airports that are driving the next-generation aviation industry.

We also provide insights on developments in passenger experience, ancillary services, revenue management, loyalty, technology, marketing, airport innovation, the competitive landscape, startups, and changing passenger behavior. I write and curate the newsletter, and we send it on Wednesdays. You can find previous issues of the newsletter here.

Last year, American Airlines announced it would sell premium economy seats on four Hawaii routes beginning in December. This is not a slightly better version of the main cabin, with better legroom, but a complete rethinking of the product and a first for American’s domestic network.

For flights on the Boeing 777-200, American promised similar premium economy service — and the same luxurious leather recliner seat — it now offers on many long-haul routes, including Los Angeles to Tokyo and Dallas/Fort Worth to Frankfurt.

This includes impressive goodies for a domestic flight, such as free food and alcohol, and an “enhanced” pillow and blanket. Priced at about $100 one-way above coach for Los Angeles-Honolulu, it can be a steal, considering it effectively mimics the first class section on Airbus A321s flying most of American’s West Coast-Hawaii legs.

I booked three tickets last month for my family, and I was giddy about it. But when we reached cruising altitude, none of the promised extras were offered — no bedding, no free food, and no free drinks. When I asked the flight attendants about it, they conferred with each other, and one told me, quite sternly, none of it was included. Possibly assuming I had upgraded for free, they told me I was lucky to have the extra space for the typical coach price.

As problems go, this was minor. But I was puzzled, and since passenger experience is my beat, I asked what happened. How can an airline promise something in marketing materials and not deliver? And was this a one-time mistake? Or did American never implement the domestic premium experience its marketing team had advertised?

An American spokeswoman blamed a communication error for the misstep but told me it is not a widespread issue.

“The food and beverages for our premium economy customers were catered on the aircraft correctly,” American spokeswoman Sunny Rodriguez said. “However, it appears the required service for premium economy was not communicated correctly to the crew working your flight. As for the blanket and pillow, our marketing team is looking into this issue.”

Rodriguez said customer relations was contacting all customers on that flight in premium economy, including me, to apologize and offer certificates for future travel. American also reimbursed customers for food and drink. Another American official told me the airline was auditing all domestic premium economy flights since December 15 to ensure it hadn’t charged anyone else for food or drink.

Again, this is not a big deal. But it strikes me that most other customer-service focused industries don’t make such major mistakes, especially for a premium product. Hotels seem to do a better job communicating product changes to front-line workers, right? Yet, in my experience, airlines often can’t meet the same expectations. It the problem training? Or communication? Or something else?

Send me an email at [email protected] or a tweet (@briansumers) with your thoughts.

— Brian Sumers, Airline Business Reporter

Stories of the Week

CEO Interview: Avianca Brasil Plots Global Expansion: Avianca Brasil does not have nearly the same worldwide reach as its cousin, Avianca Airlines, but it’s growing. The Brazilian carrier recently launched new flights to Miami and New York, and it might expand to Europe. Its CEO is (relatively) bullish on the Brazilian economy, but he’s not so sure the United States and Brazil will ratify their Open Skies agreement this year.

Airport Secrets From an Architect Who Designs Them: In this sixth installment of the Airline Insiders series, I spoke with Pat Askew, an architect specializing in airports for HKS. He explained some of the tricks architects use to help calm passengers as they walk through terminals. He also shared some details on what the airport of the future might look like. Spoiler: It won’t be that much different in 20 years than today.

Teague Works on a Design Fix to Cramped Middle Seats: In a chat last year, John Barratt, CEO of design consulting firm Teague, said he’s still working to improve the middle seat experience. He said airlines should collaborate with sponsors to make the center a happier place to be. Perhaps a sponsor could give a gift to a passenger wedged between two strangers. I’ve heard suggestions like this for years, but airlines aren’t doing it. Why not?

JetBlue Heading Toward Worst Year of On-Time Performance Since 2007 Fiasco: Most of the larger U.S. airlines are in strong shape financially and operationally. But JetBlue Airways is increasingly lagging behind. The airline had a rough 2017 and will need to improve its reliability this year. Bloomberg’s Mary Schlangenstein has details.

Airbus Sold 705 Planes in 2 Weeks But Jumbos Are a Tough Proposition: Can we write the final obituary for the A380 already? Perhaps it was an aircraft ahead of its time — maybe by 2030 airlines will crave gigantic planes — but for now, it’s a niche product few carriers want. Airbus is selling lots of planes, but they all have two engines, not four. Bloomberg’s Benjamin Katz has the story.

Flying in 2017 Was Safer Than It’s Ever Been: No commercially operated jets crashed anywhere in the world last year, making 2017 one of the safest years ever for air travel, according to CNN’s Jon Ostrower. No major U.S. airline has had a crash since 2001, a remarkable strong streak. Let’s hope it stays intact in 2018. Related: Trump Erroneously Takes Credit for 2017 Airline Safety Mark

Inside United Airlines’ Secret, Invite-Only Restaurant at Newark Airport: You’ve got to give United and its concessionaire, OTG, credit. They have taken a cramped airport space that probably would not have produced much revenue as an ordinary restaurant and turned it into an exclusive, invitation-only fine dining experience. Had it been open to everyone, the spot might have been a bust. But since not all travelers can get inside, the restaurant has gotten some buzz. Kris Van Cleave of CBS News takes us on a tour.

Those Seatback Screens on Planes Are Starting to Disappear: The New York Times has acknowledged the trend, so now we know it’s real. Airlines aren’t installing screens on short-haul aircraft, and some are removing them. That makes sense, as many flyers travel with tablets and laptops.

Las Vegas’ Allegiant Ratifies First Union Contract With Attendants: For years, Allegiant Air CEO Maury Gallagher had taken a hard line against unions, but he appears to be softening. Just before Christmas, the airline announced flight attendants had ratified their first contract, giving them a 33 percent pay increase over the five-year term of the deal, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The bargaining took six years. Pilots ratified their first agreement last summer, also after protracted and occasionally nasty bargaining. Now, the airline’s mechanics are trying to unionize.

Meet Me in San Francisco

Want to know about big travel trends coming in 2018? Skift is holding three free events in January to share our Megatrends — an overview of what we expect for travel in 2018.

We’ll be in New York on January 16, London on January 18, and San Francisco on January 30. In addition to lively discussion, we will have refreshments. And you’ll leave with a fancy magazine, featuring a story by me about how airlines are rushing to refine e-commerce strategies.

I’ll attend the San Francisco event and would love to meet you there. Or you can meet my colleagues in London and New York.


Skift Airline Business Reporter Brian Sumers [[email protected]] curates the Skift Airline Innovation Report. Skift emails the newsletter every Wednesday. Have a story idea? Or a juicy news tip? Want to share a memo? Send me an email or tweet me.

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Tags: airline innovation report, airline passenger experience, american airlines, premium economy

Photo credit: American Airlines' new premium economy seat offers domestic first-class-style legroom, but on a recent flight, the airline did not deliver what it promised. American Airlines Group

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