Airlines focus on customer grievances, image revamp even as traffic doubles

There are two sides to every story. Even as 2017 marked the year that domestic air traffic doubled in seven years and crossed the 100-million mark, it saw the image of every airline being sullied with repeated run-ins with passengers. To add to the trouble caused by skirmishes and heated verbal pow-wows, a Parliamentary Standing Committee Report has slammed the airlines for inadequate staff training, high fares and poor quality of food. With the government on its heels and an irate and vocal set of customers at their throat, airlines are putting their weight behind better training programmes and employee facilities while initiating how-to and what-to-expect kits for new fliers. The objective: wipe the grime off their image and look beyond the familiar labels of low-cost and premium brands to establish a unique identity.

The first step, everyone agrees, is to understand customer expectations better. Fliers want instant information and constant updates on schedules, complaints, flight delays and other such matters. Airlines are friends with passengers on social media and a part of their mobile app family and therein lies a perception change that all airline brands are striving to keep pace with. The next step is to train employees to deal with customer expectations and manage crises.

The big jump in number of fliers has meant that there are many first-timers on the passenger list, the new fliers are often intimidated or unaware of what the process entails. How does one deal with the problem? Airlines say they are improving their staff training, looking at better ways of communication and customer awareness on operational matters. These steps are expected to help engage better with both new and seasoned flyers, minimise tension and create a favourable brand image.

"We have rejigged our soft skills training and trying to sensitize our staff to the fact that there are many first time flyers who do not know the rules and that they need to patient while attending to them," said SpiceJet chairman Ajay Singh. Jet Airways offers a similar response. "All our frontline staff undergo soft skills training on interpersonal communications skills for managing multiple real-life service scenarios including guest perception management, problem solving and service recovery," said a Jet Airways spokesperson.

Air Asia India said that an internal survey found that 26 per cent of its customers are first time flyers. “A tutorial on flying etiquette and simple do’s and don’ts is in the pipeline considering our flyer base is relatively new,” said an Air Asia spokesperson.

There has been all round consternation after the Standing Committee Report. The report named IndiGo specifically after its panel members said they found the staff rude and comes two months after the airline’s passenger manhandling fiasco at the Delhi airport. IndiGo did not comment for the story.

To an extent the airlines believe they could manage much of the mud being flung their way by talking more to their core constituency, the Indian passenger. While they are glad that many more are travelling via airplanes which presents a growth opportunity, there is the challenge of managing customer expectations to be met.

The huge rush of fliers has been good for business, but the challenge is educating first time travellers on the ground rules of flying and training the young airline crew to be more empathetic

"While that’s very good news that we’ve been able to allow more people to experience air travel, it is also a challenge as the onus is on us to make our guests happy and ensure that their experience a good one. Not every passenger is well versed with the security regulations and/ or baggage limitations. All this leads to longer engagement times at check-in counters," AirAsia India said. It is also implementing passenger convenience measures in partnership with Bengaluru airport it said.

Vistara said that apart from extensive training, it is asking its staff to look beyond the rule book. "We empower our staff to do the right thing by being empathetic to customers, instead of blindly sticking to the rule book, a quality that often requires going above and beyond what the DGCA regulations prescribe, " said Sanjiv Kapoor, chief commercial and strategy officer, Vistara. For instance it allows for rebooking without charge for genuine errors and accommodates passengers (on a later flight) who report late if the reason is genuine and verifiable.

Empathy and education are the need of the hour according to Kapoor. "For example, airspace closures for runway maintenance or special events, inclement weather or ATC congestion have resulted in several flight cancellations and schedule changes at short notice. However passengers tend to hold airlines responsible. Better education to customers from all stakeholders will help a great deal in easing such conflicts," Kapoor said.

Not all responsibility rests with the airlines, passengers need to rethink their expectations too. "Both passengers and airline staff need to treat each other as fellow humans and as equal," said Devesh Agarwal, editor of aviation blog Bangalore Aviation. Agarwal believes that airlines must keep fliers informed about delays as quickly as possible and added: "In the US airline websites give information on average delay for each flight giving passengers better choice while booking.” Doing so in India could bring about a big change.

D Sudhakara Reddy, president of Air Passenger Association of India said that regulations need to be strengthened to improve consumer protection. He believes that airlines must rethink the compensation paid out when flights are cancelled. Clearly the wish list from fliers is a long one, growing with every flight they take. To manage their expectations will be the big brand challenge for airlines in 2018.

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