Frequent flyers know airline service is a shell of its former self, and it’s getting worse. From charging excessive fees, useless “silver” status, shrinking legroom even as the average body size grows larger, throwing passengers off aircraft from paid seats, to passengers boarding like “refugees” with too much luggage inflight, or they  damage or lose your luggage. Airlines no longer seem to care whether anyone likes them. Well, they should.

Some airlines are still enjoying happy customers, higher revenue, and more market share. The outlook for many other carriers is quite unstable. Most claim they offer premium experiences and set their prices to reflect that. Unfortunately for flyers, the experience is anything but premium.

Airline employees seem increasingly incompetent. A string of situations during the last few years show that these incidents don’t reflect competence at the airline employee level; they reveal a culture problem within, and the leaders must take specific actions to fix it. Although airline’s employees seem to be at fault, the underlying cause is the company’s lack of leadership. Employees can and will only deliver an experience to customers that they experience themselves.

This state of affairs cannot continue. Airlines must refocus their customer service strategies or risk seeing the friendlier low-cost carriers continue to chip away at their viability.

Recent changes at Delta and American are steps in the right direction, but unfortunate incidents at United Airlines shows that their employee actions have been disastrous and quite a disconnect from the company’s brand slogan “Fly the Friendly Skies.” The employees seem disconnected from those values. The contrast between the company’s brand aspirations and its actual operations couldn’t be sharper.

What are their values? Airlines have to stop pretending to provide great passenger experience and actually do it. What they are really doing is focusing on the bottom line and squeezing every cent out of each passenger, instead of delivering great value for superior retention rates as repeat customers, the core value of any successful business.

How come the smart airlines are delivering on their promises, but most are not? Smart carriers are competing to provide higher-quality experiences. The Gulf carriers, such as Emirates, Etihad or Qatar; in Asia Singapore, Cathay; in Europe Virgin, Lufthansa, Swiss are all meeting the highest standards and making money. They are successful because their cultures are focused on the customer not solely on profit. They threat their customers as guests and follow a hospitality role model.

The underlying cause is an airline’s lack of cultural leadership. The CEO and his fellow leaders at the top are responsible for the huge gap that exists between the company’s brand identity and their organizational culture. They have failed to engage, train, and motivate employees adequately and appropriately.

Most executives have not been effective in implementing and cultivating the value structures necessary at their companies. In fact, they have contributed to an unhealthy and poor-performing corporate culture by making promises and setting vague values, usually after a big PR problem. They pledge that “every customer deserves to be treated with the highest levels of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.” The company initiates a new employee training program, but in the end, no real change in their company culture is actually implemented.

The solution is cultural leadership. Implementing cultural changes at all levels from reservations, check-in to check out, making sure all teams are aware and implementing the brand ideals every step of the way. They need to lead a substantive culture change.

Cultural leadership of this nature includes, setting prescriptive values. Setting policies and procedures is not enough. Employees must be guided by clear and prescriptive values that help them determine how to handle unforeseen or difficult situations.

Empowering and equipping employees is a must. Training and new programs are ineffective if they’re not supported by policies and procedures that empower and equip employees to do the right thing. Leaders should respect employees enough to use their discretion, and empower them to do so.

Aligning employee experience and customer experience is essential. Employees can and will only deliver an experience to customers that they experience themselves, so leaders must engage employees the way they want employees to engage customers. If leaders listen to, value, and demonstrate they trust employees, employees are likely to listen to, value, and trust customers.

Focus on correct, polite, civilized and humane treatment of customers is the best way to enhance business results and profits. The airline’s culture has to match its marketing slogans, prioritize good attitudes when hiring new employees, and must follow its value system closely. The employees are incentivized to provide great customer service experiences, all of which are major sources of pride for the company.

The present trend of poor service on airlines is unacceptable, and unsustainable. “Traditional” airlines appear to be lost in a confused state of neither being budget airlines nor offering the highest-quality or best service. As consumers continue to see more options on more routes, these airlines must differentiate their services and products in a positive way or risk losing flyers to more customer-centric competitors. The core of any successful culture is to “treat others as you wish to be treated”, practiced by the smartest companies.

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