5 things airlines could learn from hotels

5 things airlines could learn from hotels

A flight is too often a stressful storm before the calm of a hotel room. Here's how the former could be more like the latter

Air travel, for many, is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

The aviation industry “has been in survival mode for as long as we can remember,” says Eric Léopold, director of the passenger program at the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Fairly or not, the industry's triage mentality has undermined public perception.

But does it have to be that way?

The hotel industry, so connected to air travel and yet worlds apart when it comes to reputation, could prove an inspiration, if only airlines would change.

With the help of experts in both the airline and hotel industries, we’ve put together a list of ideas that could make flying fun again.

1. A recognized rating system

First class bar on United EmiratesSkytrax rates Emirates a four-star airline -- we'd call its A380 business class lounge five-star.

One of the first things potential hotel guests check is the star-rating of their hotel.

It helps to manage customer expectations and provides a clear sense of the value, rather than simply the cost, of a stay.

Airlines don't employ this system.

Although one already exists -- the Skytrax Global Airline Ranking -- few air travelers know about it.

This means airline customers are often unsure of what to expect and may feel entitled to an unrealistic level of comfort.

"No one expects to go back to the glamour days of Pan Am, especially if they're flying economy," says Lori Lincoln, director of corporate communications at Shangri-La International Hotel Management. "But major airlines could improve by addressing the lack of consistency in terms of product and service. When you fly certain airlines, you never know what you're going to get."

2. Dedicated staff

Tokyo hotel staff greets International Olympic ComitteeTokyo hotel staff line up greet the International Olympic Committee.

Ask any top-end hotel executive for the secret of the brand's success, and you'll invariably get the answer: the people. 

Airlines will agree. Skytrax CEO Edward Plaisted says that staff service is “critical” to achieving five-star status in a company’s rankings.

And yet staff service after you board an airplane is often a poor substitute for what you receive when you check in at a good hotel.

Incentive is an important factor. While a hotel receptionist or porter could rise to a management position over the course of a career, the ceiling is lower for flight attendants.

Timothy Wright, general manager of the Kowloon Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong, says that “thorough training and development opportunities throughout the employee’s career” are crucial to maintaining a high level of service.

For example, staff at Shangri-La are carefully chosen for their ability to engage customers and extend genuine care and hospitality.

“The core values of helpfulness, flexibility, anticipation and honesty are very important,” says Wright.

3. Restore the human touch

Air Asia stewardess serving customersA can of soda is vastly superior to a small plastic cup of soda.

Humanity in modern travel means making sure the customer feels properly looked after.

At hotels, this might be achieved with something as simple as a hand-written welcome note, or having the bar staff remember a guest’s drink from one cocktail hour to the next.

This kind of attention to detail might be easier to sustain in a hotel environment, but airlines could certainly do more to make passengers feel like individuals and less like numbers on a manifest.

American low-cost carrier JetBlue, for one, had a mission to bring humanity back to air travel. Now, says Lincoln, some people will give up miles they can earn on major carriers to fly JetBlue, “because they prefer the experience.”

“From the very beginning we understood something was fundamentally inadequate with the service in our industry and knew that we had to be the change if we wanted to succeed,” says Allison Steinberg, spokesperson for JetBlue.

This ad campaign for the airline outlines some of these changes, which include offering more legroom in economy class and giving passengers the whole can of soda instead of just a cup.

4. Personalized experiences

Butler at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Washington D.C.Airlines might take a cue from Mandarin Oriental's personal butler service.

Good hotels avoid the perception of commodifying the travel product by focusing on personalized guest service.

Wright, at Shangri-La, says, "We keep extensive records of guests’ preferences so that we can make them feel at home.”

Loyalty programs and, potentially, social media should allow airlines to do the same, but they rarely do.

"As an airline passenger, you often feel like a widget being shuttled about instead of a person," says Lincoln.

She also observes that while airlines expect flexibility from customers, they rarely reciprocate.

Small offerings, such as a personal greeting and a bottle of water for frequent fliers in economy class, could make a big difference.

In a "white paper" released at the World Passenger Symposium in Abu Dhabi in October 2012, IATA’s Simplifying the Business (StB) think tank even describes an onboard concierge as a feature of air travel in 2020.

"With all the technological advances to support customer service, airlines should be able to make flight experiences just a little more personal," says Lincoln. "That could go a long way to making flying more hospitable."

5. Improved efficiency

Self check in for LufthansaLufthansa's quick self check-ins. Could this be standardized throughout the industry?

While hotels can influence their customers’ experience from the moment they disembark -- for example, with a meet and greet service at the airport and shuttle or limousine transfer -- airlines have comparatively little control over what happens between check-in and boarding.   

IATA recognized this in the StB paper, which introduces a new program and a vision of how efficiently people might travel in the future.

Its “vision 2020” for the airport experience is fast and seamless, as well as “predictable, secure and globally consistent."

IATA is the organization that introduced e-tickets and bar-coded boarding passes to streamline the passenger experience.

In response to its recent Global Passenger Survey, new initiatives at IATA aim to provide more self-service options across the journey, phase out the check-in process, develop a "risk-based" security model that "minimizes the need to unpack or disrobe" and standardize automated border control.

The goal is to make flying simple and satisfying.

If airlines could adopt a few of these measures, perhaps it could be. 

Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

Read more about Samantha Leese