Those readers who follow this blog will know that I have very clear opinions on airlines, loyalty, and customer experience.
They also know that I travel a fair amount for both business and pleasure, and that I’ve experienced incredible and unexpected acts of customer service as well as unbelievable ineptitude by both airline staff and fellow travellers.
Earlier this year I shared a story about an amazing flight attendant on Delta airlines whom I thanked, along with Delta, on Twitter and this blog, with no response or acknowledgement. I’ve also shared my perspective on the fickleness of airline loyalty based on their “you’re only as good as your last purchase” attitude. Airlines are not the only ones in my frequent flyer crosshairs; I published a rant about my frustration with the variety of airline passenger personalities that conspire to put me the mad-house.
The point is, I’ve had my fair share of eye-opening experiences at airports and with airlines, and in particular with Delta Airlines to which I’ve given my loyalty for almost 10 years (including my years on NorthWest, a Delta acquisition).
I’ve often thought, based on the number of frustrating experiences I’ve had while traveling, that I have a target on my back. A sign that says, “Hey airlines, come kick me!”
The reality is that, given my profession, I’m hyper-sensitive to customer experience issues and take exception to the poor experiences, especially when the solution is so simple.
Yet, corporate culture, greed or just plain ignorance often overrule good business practice, common sense, and improved customer experience.
Today’s story is inspired by yet another business trip on Delta airlines.
Delta and WestJet – a partnership of convenience, not customer experience
Earlier this year, Delta, “the world’s largest airline,” proudly announced a partnership with the Canadian airline WestJet. Its press release touted the benefits that this new pairing would deliver to customers travelling between the United States and Canada. The union would offer more flights to more destinations across both countries.
Passengers now can connect between WestJet and Delta flights at more than 25 gateways in Canada and the United States. “Delta is pleased that its customers now have easy access to WestJet’s extensive Canadian network as well as WestJet’s trans-border services between Canada and the United States,” said Charlie Pappas, Delta’s Vice President of Alliances.
The reality is that the partnership offers additional routes and delivers possible cost-savings to Delta airlines but penalizes Delta’s loyal customers who are forced to fly WestJet.
As a frequent flyer, I used to be able to fly from a Canadian city to any city in the US or beyond on a Delta flight and, of course, enjoy the basic and optional benefits afforded to regular customers and the upgraded benefits afforded to frequent flyers like myself.
These include the option to check in online or at airport kiosks, pre-selecting a seat, and/or pre-purchasing a premium seat. As a frequent flyer, I was also afforded the benefit of no-charge premium seat selections, the possibility of free upgrades, access to priority lanes at security, and early boarding. Services I appreciated, and have come to expect when flying Delta.
After the Delta-WestJet interline agreement was announced, the majority of flight segments between Canadian cities and US cities are transferred to WestJet. At first I was excited about the prospect due to WestJet’s generally positive reputation. However, as I discovered, WestJet does not recognize my frequent flyer status. In fact, they don’t recognize me as a customer at all. Let me explain.
How I Lost My Earned Benefits
WestJet does not recognize the loyalty and status earned by the thousands of dollars spent with Delta, and so does not offer the benefits promised to Delta’s Medallion members.
For example, when the flight is operated by WestJet, we cannot view seats, select a seat, or even check in online because the flight is operated by a code-share partner. We are also unable to do this on the WestJet site because it’s a Delta-issued ticket.
We can’t even check in at the airport kiosks and so are forced to queue up at the airport customer service counters in order to be manually checked in and assigned a seat.
I’ve spent up to 45 minutes in WestJet customer service queues at the Toronto airport, just to check in – something that I could have done in seconds online or at a Kiosk if the flight was operated by the airline I purchased the ticket from.
Adding insult to injury, because we can’t pre-select a seat or digitally check in – for free or for a fee – we’re sent to the land of misfit toys: middle seats and last-row-by-the-washroom seats.
Once we finally get our boarding passes to the worst seats on the airplane, we cannot access priority lanes or early boarding benefits earned by our status and loyalty with Delta because the boarding passes are issued by WestJet which, again, doesn’t recognize our status. In short, we’re being penalized. The promised benefits that were to be extended to loyal customers who have spent thousands of dollars with Delta, aren’t available.
In fact, WestJet seems to consider Delta customers less valuable than its own customers who purchased the lowest possible ticket fares. Those customers are afforded the option to view online seat maps, purchase an upgraded economy seat, and check in online. Even pay-for-service options are not made available to customers of WestJet’s “valued partner airline.”
The Devil Is In The Details
I understand the business value for Delta in this partnership. Connecting to WestJet’s Canadian routes allows Delta to capture the revenue previously given to Canadian airlines.
In return, WestJet operates some of the Canada-to-US segments that Delta airlines used to fly. This saves on airport fees and other fees associated with maintaining staff and planes at Canadian airports. Presumably, the net difference is a positive line item on Delta’s financial statement. Shareholders rejoice and the executives’ already exorbitant salaries are augmented.
While executives and shareholders are lighting up stogies and patting themselves on the back, loyal customers, those of us who have helped make Delta the largest airline in the world, are tossed aside.
The issue is that the partnership is a interline agreement; WestJet did not become part of the SkyTeam Alliance. Medallion benefits are extended across SkyTeam alliance airlines and flights.
According to the press release, the agreement allows WestJet and Delta customers to purchase connecting flights on one ticket, receive boarding passes for all segments at their first check-in, and tag bags through to their final destination. It says nothing about the decreased customer experience for Medallion customers.
The moral of the story is that corporations often overlook the details when it comes to the customer experience with their brands and it’s those little details that can have the greatest impact on brand perception.
I wrote this post to point out the importance of customer experience and that convenience and “world-domination” culture cannot supersede that experience; it must the guiding principle in all business decisions and the execution of these decisions must be then vetted against the goal of superior customer experience.
Is there any real value in airline loyalty programs anymore or are they marketing facades designed to steal our business?
Are loyalty programs mandated marketing tools that have lost touch with their original purpose?
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego
Image Credit: Tax Credit, via Creative Commons