Airlines Struggle to Bridge In-flight Service Gap in Tough Economy

When participants and attendees travel for conferences, business meetings, corporate events and incentive travel, event planners realize that  their experience on the way there sets the tone for the entire event. Unfortunately, with the constraints airlines face, it is becoming increasingly challenging to deliver blue chip service.

With the global economic downturn, fluctuating fuel prices and heightened security concerns, airlines have been hammered by major turbulence. Here are some examples from recent headlines. 

Fuel Bites into Singapore Airlines First Half Profits

Calin Rovinescu's Second Shot at Unfinished Business

The Contenders

Calin Rovinescu was commended for his efforts to turn things around at Air Canada after inheriting what was described as a "poisoned chalice".

Rising Fuel Costs Batter Emirates' Profit

Airlines globally are expected to suffer a fall in total profits to $6.9 billion this year compared with $16 billion last year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). A further reduction to $4.9 billion next year is predicted amid the weak global economic environment.

There has been some positive news in what is otherwise, a very bleak landscape:

CAL makes $200 Million Profit

Air Jamaica, after the merger, also made its first ever consecutive profit in its 50-year history.

Virgin Airlines Swings to Profit, Sees Tough Year Ahead

As airlines cut corners to remain profitable, service levels are being eroded. This has become particularly noticeable in North America.

Consider the following scenario that has been repeated a number of times when traveling in Canada, to the US and the Caribbean on Canadian and US airlines.

North American Airline Scenario: The pillows and blankets that had to be purchased came in a plastic container. The "blanket" was a sheet of felt that quickly developed holes. I asked "Where is the pillow?" I was told to blow into the plastic case. There was no towel service and no amenity kits were provided. Soft drinks, juice, coffee and tea were complimentary. Cold snacks could be purchased. Movies and TV were pay-for-view. Flight attendants were warm, friendly and helpful.

As a former flight attendant, I commend the in-flight crews for doing their best under a very challenging situation.

To be fair, I haven't recently taken an economy class overseas flight on a Canadian or U.S. airline. If you have, please add your comments.

Airline MenuForeign Airline Scenario: I traveled economy on Emirates Airlines and landed in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. Pillows and blankets were provided. Passengers were given damp cloths to freshen up. Amenity kits that included socks, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a sleeping mask were distributed. We received menus with choices for the 2 hot meals that were served on each flight leg. All beverages except champagne were complimentary. All in-flight entertainment was complimentary. Flight attendants were warm, friendly and helpful.

When I have recently traveled on Etihad Airways and, in the past, on Singapore Airlines, the economy service was of the same quality. Clients have been cutting back but, based on past experience, I can only describe the business class service on these airlines as stellar. Economy class service on some Asian and Middle Eastern airlines is at about the same level as business class on many US and Canadian airlines.

Airlines will continue to face a grueling market. It will take a lot of innovative thinking to find effective strategies. I wish wish there were easy answers. There has to be a way to strike a balance between generating profits to remain viable and giving passengers the type of in-flight experience they expect and deserve.

Photo Credit: Xin Li 88

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