airline customer service

Customer Service Lessons From the Airline Industry

The impact of great customer service on airlines is hard to overstate.

Watermark Customer Experience ROI Study that measured Dow Jones and Moody’s found that JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska Airlines — which all provided above industry-average customer experiences — outperformed their competitors in stock earnings.

“But wait,” you might wonder, “I’m not running an airline, why should I care?”

True, but you don’t have to be a pilot to recognize invaluable customer service lessons as taught by the airline industry. The beauty of them is that they’re universal truths that can be applied to your industry, too.

(But hey, if you want to improve your customer service right now, we can help you start right away.)


There are, of course, some interesting lessons to take from the airline industry. But there are also what you might call anti-lessons — things that some airlines taught us not to do.

We’re talking about the United Express Flight 3411 incident, of course.

For those who’ve been spending most of 2017 under the rock, here’s a recap: on 9 April 2017, an overbooking of a United Express flight caused a lot of distress.

To make room for four airline employees, plane staff selected four passengers for involuntary removal. Three passengers complied, but the fourth one refused and had to be forcibly removed and dragged by his arms while he was screaming.

If you feel like getting extremely angry and screaming at the monitor, here’s a video of this incident:

That sure is one way to create an unforgettable customer experience.

Now, there are two lessons to learn from the United Express scandal. One is, “Don’t do it”. The other is “Beat your competitors, not your customers”.

But in all seriousness, here’s what you need to learn.

Being Customer-Centric: Learn to Bend Your Rules

how to be customer centric

Most rules exist for a reason. If one customer’s demand encroaches on other customers’ well-being, feel free to ignore it. However, if you see that your own rules dampen the experience to no great benefit, it’s time to reevaluate your stances.

Even a moderate amount of leniency with your policies goes a long way.

Flight 3411 may be a tad too extreme of an example, so here’s another: two girls were stopped by an airport staff for wearing leggings, which is against company’s dress code.

The policy of United Airlines on this matter is very clear. The girls and their parents were travelling with special discount tickets that specifically enforce this dress code. So in the eyes of the law at least, United Airlines employees were well within their right to stop these passengers.

As I am no airline expert, perhaps there are some safety details I’m not privy to. In all seriousness, I do not know how the lack of a dress code endangers the passengers.

However, bending rules from time to time is a great way of signalling to your customers that they matter to you more than their money or your policies.

The fact that this dress code was specifically enforced for owners of discounted tickets makes them feel like second-rate, “discounted” customers.

That’s a logical reach, for sure. But you can’t deny that many people nowadays can easily get into this headspace of “A company institutes policies I don’t like; therefore, the company doesn’t like me”.

As with most things in this world, there needs to be a delicate balance. You don’t want your customer service area to end up as a Mad Max-like free-for-all nightmare, but at the same time you don’t want to overregulate your customers, either.

Don’t punish people for wearing leggings, is all we’re saying.

Learn the Communication Style of the 21st Century

social media communication

The chief reason why the United Express incident and all similar scandals blew up the way they did is social media.

It takes literally a couple of seconds to report any event that has happened to you to your circle of friends and beyond. Anyone at any point in time can take out their phones and start filming — thus either creating the narrative or spinning it however they like.

To let the Flight 3411 incident happen in front of so many passengers was one of the worst mistakes to make (the worst one, of course, is to let this incident happen in the first place).

The internet is like love: it transcends both space and time. That’s why even a year after, we’re still talking about what happened during that fateful flight.

In the age of social media, companies that fail to take advantage of new ways of communication, are in for a nasty surprise.

Naturally, it’s not only about the means of communication but also the language. For example, this is what Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, had to say in his official statement on Twitter: “I apologise for having to re-accommodate these passengers.”

This rubbed the already agitated people the wrong way, as it sounded too close to “We’re sorry you feel this way”. It took more outrage and further stock decline for them to issue another apology — this time, apologizing for the “horrific event”.

This could’ve easily been nipped in the bud if, instead of biding their time and giving out this non-apology, they immediately responded in a truthful and sincere manner. This wouldn’t satisfy everyone, but it would have silenced most detractors.

What they’ve done instead was too little too late. The word of mouth has the snowball effect, and you can’t stop it once it goes far enough.

On the positive side of things, there are peaceful applications to social media, too. For one, it lets you inform your customers about the sudden changes.

The possibility of missing a flight or having your flight delayed causes anxiety to millions of people every year. This is precisely why many airlines choose to inform and manage expectations through social media, by communicating not only delayed flight but also the reasons for the delay: weather conditions, arrival of a politician/star on a private jet, technical snafus, etc.

This principle can be applied just as well to any other industry. People in general value consistency over surprises, so in the event of any such surprises, it pays to let your customers know about them — and as soon as possible.


Here’s another lesson for you: whatever it takes, always end on a positive note — be it an interaction with customers, a talk with employees, or an official statement on Twitter.

Not only are people more likely to remember the last thing they’ve heard or interacted with, this thing will also color their entire perception. It’s like how a pleasant conversation at the reception desk can leave you in high spirits, even if you had to wait for hours to get there.

So without further ado, here’s a powerful customer service lesson as taught by the airline industry.

Customer Service Through Employee Experience

improve employee experience

If you want to provide greater customer service, you have to look beyond just customers. Your employees are equally as deserving of good experiences, and their personal and professional well-being greatly reflects on your customer service efforts.

The thing is, every interaction between your customers and employees echoes back to your brand. If an employee is in a particularly bad mood (long shifts, office with no air conditioning, angry management, etc.), they are that much more likely to take their frustration out on customers.

And the result? The customer will associate your entire business with this one unpleasant experience.

To prevent this from happening, you need to make sure that your employees are fulfilled, happy and have a healthy outlet for their emotions.

This is what Oakland Airport learned: make life easier for your staff, and they will start making life easier for your customers. For OAK, it came in the form of better queuing with clear navigation.

A small thing, but this not only helps employees save valuable time but also lets them feel valued themselves.

Customer service does not exist in a vacuum. It is a multi-pillared construction, a large part of which is employee experience.

As Richard Branson says on the Virgin Airlines website, “Learn to look after your staff first, and the rest will follow.”

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


What’s the moral of the story? Airlines that focus on customer experience benefit from better profitability and competitiveness.

Likewise in other industries: a greater focus on customer service gives you a competitive edge. That is to say, you should really take a cue or two from airlines and learn to aim for the sky.

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