Blame it on the lettuce leaf liner. Just a few years ago, when airline CEOs across the US were nervously eyeing their costs per available seat mile, the challenge was to trim costs without upsetting the passenger. An easy throwaway was the limp piece of lettuce that lined the trays of so many airline meals. Airlines saved thousands of dollars in lettuce purchases and, the theory went, the passenger did not miss the service because the leaf was invariably left uneaten.

But the idea was taken too far. Before too long, hot meals disappeared on all but the longest of flights, to be replaced by a sad looking cheese or ham sandwich (no lettuce), which might be plonked on the passenger's inflight tray or might have to be collected from a 'deli cart' at the gateway. It was a swift and slippery slope to the peanuts-and-soda service only, to the point where the difference in onboard service between the majors and the so-called low-cost, low-fare airlines has become indistinguishable.

A couple of colleagues travelled recently on the same aircraft, bearing the livery of a US major, out of San Francisco. 'It was Southwest Airlines without the peanuts,' commented the first traveller. 'And they seemed to think I should be grateful for a Coke.' The second traveller, who had been seated further back, then piped up: 'You got a drink?'

Martin Shugrue, CEO of the new Pan Am, recently described his airline's policy as rare in the US: 'We feed you on every flight and we give you food you can eat and wine you can drink.'

But the majors, with their new-found wealth and controlled costs, now acknowledge that they have to make amends. There is hardly a day that goes by when at least one of them is not displaying an advertisement in a US newspaper or magazine promising all kinds of attractive new creature comforts.

Delta Air Lines, for example, is offering a staggeringly wide choice of vintage wines to its international first and business class passengers, as well as an in-seat power system for laptop computers. American Airlines has thrown up its hands and admitted that it fell behind in customer service while its attentions were diverted elsewhere. US majors everywhere are hiring cookery writers and celebrity chefs as consultants, then lauding these new-found talents.

But one airline has gone a brave step further. Hats off to Gerald Greenwald, CEO at United Airlines, for honesty. His airline recently received the results of a passenger survey and was stung by the response, which is that the American public, especially the business traveller, is fed up with flying. Not surprisingly, therefore, that same public regards the airlines' advertising efforts, portraying flying as a magical, glamorous experience, with something not far short of contempt.

According to the survey, which looked at all US carriers, 52 per cent of frequent travellers believe that airline service in the US could be greatly improved, almost as many think airlines are not honest or straightforward when there is a delay or flight problem, and 41 per cent believe that service has deteriorated over the past five years. The survey also reveals that business travellers have learned to look after themselves, convinced that the airlines won't look out for them, and they regard the whole travel process as a game that is stacked against them.

'Whether it's us or one of the other airlines, we have been full of smoke and clouds,' says Greenwald. 'And nobody believes us.' Flying is just work to the business traveller, says Greenwald, and that person wants just one thing - a hassle-free flight.

So United has launched an advertisement campaign which admits, upfront, that flying is a pain. 'The way people fly on TV isn't the way people fly in life,' states the new-look advert. 'Any frequent flyer knows the real picture: long lines, crowded planes, delays.'

United is even dropping the phrase 'friendly skies', which has been its rallying cry for 30 years. 'I agonised over that decision,' admits Greenwald. 'The phrase is a valuable asset because it is one of only a handful of phrases that everyone remembers. It is an asset because it has been repeated for 30 years. But today it is just two words to the public. It does not ring clear. It does not describe what the experience is these days.'

United has embarked on a $400 million, three-year project that aims to shorten the gap between the promise and the actual experience. The airline plans to concentrate, among other things, on expanding executive lounges, improving on-time performance, and testing new airport technologies, such as electronic ticketing and check-in services in restaurants.

One message that became apparent in United's survey was the power of the frequent flyer programme. For example, the carrier was puzzled at first to see that it outperformed Singapore Airlines between the US and Singapore, despite SIA's reputation for exceptional service. 'Frequent flyer miles is what is going on here,' says Greenwald. 'But I don't want people to choose us because we are rich; I want them to choose us because we are pretty.'

Greenwald could be on to something here. US travellers should welcome a bit of honesty combined with a genuine effort towards making their journey a smoother one. His airline's new mandate is to offer comfort as a minimum and enjoyment as the ideal.

Southwest Airlines knows more than any carrier that the enjoyment part does not have to be expensive. In fact, Southwest spends an average of just 28 cents per passenger, per flight on food and beverages, but few are disappointed because the airline is honest in its promises, which are low fares, friendly service and peanuts. Sans lettuce.


Source: Airline Business