Musings on Qantas’ declining service standards and Virgin’s opportunity

Qantas Service Centre.jpg
Qantas’ Centre of Service Excellence. A lot of good that’s done?

Much is said by many people of declining service standards at Qantas. But rarely is systematic, not anecdotal, evidence presented.

“Service” is the keyword in the business today as Virgin Australia seeks to woo Qantas passengers based on both price and experience. As Virgin Australia chief executive remarked last week, “When V Australia started operating on the LA route, the average business class fare dropped by 20% and the average lowest economy fare by 40%.And may I say it was not at the expense of service. Our focus on excellent service and value has been rewarded by strong growth and critical acclaim.”

And so I find it appropriate to share two recent anecdotal, but also systematic, incidents exemplifying the claims of Qantas’ declining standards.

First, during meal tray collection of a recent Los Angeles-Melbourne flight, a flight attendant noticed on the floor a spoon adorned with the desert’s frosting. Perhaps a passenger dropped it or maybe it fell off the tray, but rather than pick up the spoon and pop it in the trolley, the flight attendant kicked it behind her.

A number of cabin crew walked by the white spoon, conspicuous on the gray carpet, but apparently did not notice it. Finally one empty-handed crew member noticed the spoon, stopped walking, stared at the spoon, and then kicked it to the side of the aisle.

While flight attendants have a safety role on aircraft, they are also present for service, be it on Qantas or Tiger, although you expect service, and certainly pay for it, to be better on the former rather than the latter.

Qantas ticket jacket.jpgMy second experience occurred many months and years earlier but I did not realize it until Sunday evening when checking in at the Qantas counter at New York’s JFK. I watched the agent, contracted from British Airways, carefully affix my luggage claim tags to the center bottom of a slip of paper.

She then tucked my connecting boarding pass underneath the claim check flap and on top inserted the boarding pass through a pre-cut slit and folded the corner over, thereby creating a minimalist ticket jacket (right). After all, that is what agents are supposed to do: The top corner has the slit and the bottom centre instructs agents to “affix claim here”. But in over a dozen recent connecting flights, with luggage, no Qantas agent in Australia bothered to make the ticket jacket. Instead I was handed a jumble of papers.

Borghetti is banking on experiences like these to shift passengers from Qantas to Virgin, which he aims to make the carrier of choice. Good and even great experiences with Qantas do not render these bad ones irrelevant.

Indeed, they are interesting to contemplate since Qantas in 2009 opened its $10m Centre of Service Excellence to provide “enhanced training” to the airline’s staff. Pop quiz: which Qantas executive officially opened the centre?

The same one who now heads up the competition and by his own account cannot afford to have service that is anything less than the best. Was Borghetti stymied somehow at Qantas? Or is Virgin really better at its core, and about to vaunt it now more than ever?

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