Sunday, September 25, 2011

Insincerity as a business model

I'm spending over a day of my life this week in completely full steel tubes, shuttling back and forth from the West Coast to Old Europe. For that, I am being rewarded with "miles" that may someday allow me to spend more time in cramped steel tubes.

This time, the most convenient routing put me on United-Continental. While once the old Continental provided nice amenities — like seat power in coach — the new merged airline is racing to the bottom with United’s trademarked approach of treating coach passengers like the worst people in the bottom floor of steerage on the Titianic. All the while, they want us to believe the merger is good for service quality.

To that end, the nominal safety video began with a propaganda piece by new United CEO Jeff Smisek trying to convince us that what we were seeing was better service. This is the same message Smisek has been preaching for a year, since Continental disappeared as an independent company.

But when he concluded “Thanks for flying us and have a great flight,” it didn’t match the reality around me. In United Steerage™ there is no leg room, and on a 100% full 757 there is no shoulder room either. Being domestic coach, there was also no food unless you wanted to pony up airport-style prices. Trapped in my seat, I got a lot of work done, but I wouldn’t confuse it with a “great flight.” Thanks to deregulation and commoditization, we have reasonable fares but great service is a distant memory.

Similarly, the stewardess-presenter on the safety part of the video concluded “We ask you to relax, sit back and enjoy your time with us.” Surrounded by humanity and unable to move, in a seat that barely reclines, and without a clear view of the tiny movie screen, I wouldn’t say I ever relaxed, sat back or enjoyed much of anything.

It gets better. After one flight, I got an email asking for my opinion in an online satisfaction survey. After I gave them an earful, the computer said:

Thank you for taking the time to complete this questionnaire! The information you provided will help us ensure we are meeting your needs.
However, I know full well that they’re not going to change their business model or pricing policy based on mere customer complaints — losing market share, maybe, but right now they assume they can make money by being bigger rather than better. This is, after all, the airline that invented a category worse than coach — Economy Minus® — lowering the standard seat pitch to 31", even less than Southwest. This is also the company that pioneered charging for bags, meals and movies.

So as someone with several decades as a consumer (and graduate courses in marketing), I wonder why people say this? Are they just naturally insincere? Have they ever heard of cognitive dissonance? Do they think people won’t notice? Or do they hope people assume that the service is just as lousy on every other competing airline?

Orwell and Goebbels said you could lie to people repeatedly if they had no frame of reality to compare it to. Does any private business (as opposed to the Federal government) think they have enough control over the media to be able to get away with it?

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