How to destroy Customer Experience

When Airbus launched the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the A380 in 2007, it made aviation history. Aiming to replace the queen of the skies, the Boeing 747, the Airbus A380 entered service with much aplomb and celebration. It was designed to carry up to 800 passengers just a far as the 747 but quieter, and cheaper. It is still a marvel of modern engineering considering a hundred years earlier, humanity just barely got off the ground and start flying.

Many airlines launched the A380 with premium service and the branding and marketing went with the premium approach. Middle eastern carriers like Emirates and Qatar envisioned beds, bar service and more. Many Asian airlines also did likewise. Soon however, with rising fuel prices and the fact that passengers were not keen on the hub and spoke model, it quickly lost its shine and profitability. We, passengers, wanted cheap airfares and direct flights. We hate spending hours in transit and wanted more flight timing options instead of one or two high-capacity flights a day. The A380 relied on large hubs with thousands of passengers plying between them before moving to smaller aircraft. We didn’t like that and many airlines were soon put off the A380.

Malaysia Airlines had six A380s for long haul routes that are frequently flown with the older Boeing 747 such between Kuala Lumpur (KL) and London. Once the initial appeal waned, the flights were not profitable as they were never at capacity. So much later, the airline considered selling or leasing out the planes. With limited success in selling back the planes, they started using the giant superjumbo for routes that had seasonal peak demands. They were trying to fill sudden peaks on certain routes. So happens, I was on one of them recently. The Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok route isn’t very long. It’s only 1,100km, a bit over a tenth of the KL to London distance. So this became an interesting study in branding and customer experience.

The KL-Bangkok route is serviced by 737s carrying around 160 passengers. The only way you use an A380 is to combine 3 flights into one. The advantage is you free up some aircraft for other routes but you reduce the options available for passengers. This already delivers a negative customer experience. Imagine, like me, wanted to arrive in Bangkok just about dinner time (7pm Bangkok Time). Not too late but not too early. I booked myself on the 5:50pm flight which meant that I arrive just after 7pm. It is a 2 hour 10 minute flight but Bangkok, being one hour behind (GMT+7) I would gain an hour. My now consolidated A380 flight was now the result of merging the 3pm and 5pm  and 7pm flights. This meant passengers hoping to get to Bangkok for an evening appointment by leaving at 3 would be seriously upset. By departing at 7pm when that by the time I checked into my AirBnb in Bangkok, it was past 9pm. The large aircraft also posed the added delay of embarking and deplaning 450 people and luggage.

Not exactly premium service!

Adding to the injury, there was no gate at Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok International Airport) to accommodate the aircraft so we ended up disembarking on the tarmac and using buses to the terminal. It just feels like a typical low-cost carrier. How would you rate the experience if you were a passenger at this point?

Interestingly, the same thing happened on my return flight and the result was equally bad. My 6:50pm flight actually left at 10pm! As a business class traveler, it was a jarring experience – moving from the comfortable lounge to the gate, going down a stairs to a bus and boarding the aircraft parked a way on the tarmac. Being cramped on the bus in the hot humid airport is just incongruous to a pleasant flight experience that one would expect on business class. More so when you are on a full-service airline on what was supposed to be a premium aircraft. The best summary was by one of the business class travelers on the bus with me. “This is just like AirAsia” they said, referring to the low-cost carrier flying out of budget terminals. Budget terminals don’t have aerobridges so buses for the passengers are the norm.

If you have a premium product, do ensure an end-to-end premium experience. If you look at Apple for example, they go great lengths to dictate the feel from the stores themselves to the packaging, including materials and the un-boxing experience. Similarly, take a look at a designer product store. Rolex or Coach are going to give you a good experience before you even purchase the product. A banking customer with a platinum card and premiere customer status should have a differentiated service. Many banks reserve parking spaces, offer refreshments and usually, a nicer lounge to wait for premium customers. After all, if you spend all that effort with the branding and marketing, consistency is the least you can do. It makes a difference.

“Customer experience is the sum of our interactions with the brand.”