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Not the friendly skies

United Airlines’ appalling behavior towards passengers–its customers–is not “new news” but because its latest atrocities happened in between two of my recent trips, they’re still top of mind with me. (Full disclosure—I’ve loathed United Airlines for many years and go out of my way to try to avoid flying them.)

The days when flying was glamourous and it was an “event” (I believe that notion dates back to the 1960s) are long gone. The airline industry seems to be the only one where the customer comes last and the axiom “the customer is always right” is far from true. What other industry would remove paying customers in favor of employees? That would never happen in a restaurant or a hotel! When I was in college, I waitressed and the goal was to always turn tables—more turnover, more money. If customers were lingering and we had others waiting for tables, we could politely tell those who had paid their bill, or were close to doing so that we needed the table. They could choose to leave or to stay, but we could not forcibly remove them. This concept seems to be lost on United, and other airlines for that matter. Maybe it’s because they know they “have us.” If their fare is better priced than all others, the majority of us will purchase that ticket–even if we dislike the airline–because we all have some budget to which we must adhere.

The airline industry should look to today’s cafés and coffeehouses to learn how to treat their customers. Most of these establishments offer free Wi-Fi and allow patrons to stay for hours–all day in some cases–while they tap away on their computers and tablets, read or socialize. I’ve been in Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Costa Coffee and Starbucks stores, as well as independent coffee shops around the world, and in every one there were customers hanging around leisurely and no one was asking or forcing them to leave. Sure, it can be annoying when you want to sit and drink your coffee or tea and the tables are occupied by people who do not seem to have any food or beverages on their tables and show no signs of leaving (and you wonder if they ever purchased anything in the first place or have they just monopolized the table for hours because of the free Wi-Fi…). But for the café or coffeehouse, it’s good business because those customers keep returning and we can assume they purchase items upon each visit. If these customers were asked to leave, they may never return, and they would not have to because there is too much competition in the marketplace.

It is this “third place” concept–a place for people to go to relax, socialize, or simply spend time outside of their home or work–that resulted in coffee shops remaining one of the fastest growing global foodservice categories in 2016 per Euromonitor International. This shows no signs of slowing down as the strongest growth is coming from emerging markets (See story in T&CTJ’s upcoming May 2017 issue). Cafés and coffeehouses are increasingly becoming more enticing places to hang out—décor and design to match the individual neighborhoods, larger spaces, good lighting, comfortable seats, and more tables, along with expanded food and tea selections, and of course, a variety of coffee options.

Airlines should pay attention, because while the aforementioned accoutrements exceed their capabilities, at some point, the allure of frequent flyer miles might not be enough to overcome their poor treatment of passengers—a.k.a., customers.

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