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ADec 10, 2012

Dale Carnegie 101—Hope For The U.S. Airline Industry

Andrew Hallam

My wife is a penny-pincher.  I’ve had my hand slapped in the supermarket when reaching for a second basket of organic blueberries.  She says no to  a spa afternoon, not me. 

But there’s one place she doesn’t scrimp:  airlines.  Yes, she always travels economy class, but no matter how inexpensive an advertised flight might be, she won’t travel on an American airline—unless she has to.

She isn’t alone.  Every June, more than 200 of my teaching colleagues at Singapore American School fly home to the U.S. for the summer.  Few of them travel on U.S. carriers, if they can help it.  My parsimonious wife once shrieked when she caught me booking a flight with Delta.  We eventually selected a flight with Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airlines.  It cost us $500 more to do so.

U.S. airlines have an ever-growing reputation for poor service, snarky flight attendants and low quality in-flight entertainment systems.  The rest of the world’s airlines--especially Asia’s carriers--are kicking them silly in the branding department.  This is strictly a case where poor service, not out-sourcing, is destroying American jobs. 

 The World Airline Awards recently named the top carriers for 2012, after surveying thousands of travelers from the largest international airlines to the smallest domestic carriers.  The survey measures passenger satisfaction based on First Class, Business Class, Premium Economy, and Economy Class.  Key performance measurements are assessed based on in-flight service, check-in experiences, onboard seat comfort, cabin cleanliness, food, beverages, in-flight entertainment and staff service.

U.S. carriers ranked horribly in the list of the world’s top airlines. Virgin American Airlines was the best of the suffering bunch, at 26th overall.  Alaskan was 49th; SouthWest Airlines 51st; Delta 57th; American Eagle 60th; United was 64th; and American Airlines ranked 84th.  When it comes to international flights, cost seems to have little bearing on customer loyalty or satisfaction.  Singapore Airlines (ranked #1 for economy class) is almost always pricier to fly than its U.S. counterparts.  But this doesn’t squash its popularity; even my penny-pinching wife loves them.   American carriers could, in fact, increase the costs of their international flights and make more money in the process, if they took a page from one of America’s famous playbooks on courtesy.

Of course, America has some fabulous service-oriented staff at their airlines.  But the majority falls short of their Asian counterparts.  You might consider respect and politeness an ingrained Asian quality, giving such staff an inherent advantage over most western carriers.

Step inside a Hong Kong elevator and check out the control buttons.  One of them will be particularly worn out:  the one that closes the door.  Not wanting to wait for an incoming elevator traveler, many Hong Kong citizens desperately reach for the “door closed” button, so they can quickly get on their way. 

Expatriate women who aren’t rail thin can commonly walk into clothing shops to hear the store manager brazenly telling them that nothing will fit them; they’re simply “too fat.”

Perfect strangers in Singapore often ask me how much money I make, and what I paid for my car, bike or how much I pay in rent.  These are social barrier breakers that would shock the average westerner. 

Cultures are different, and it isn’t fair to judge one as right and the other as wrong.  Nor is it fair to suggest that one group is more polite than another.  But many Asian businesses (such as the airlines) are adapting business ethics from our cultural playbooks— and giving us a thorough beating in the process.  Most notable among them is the classic Dale Carnegie book, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Asian airline staff seems to have Carnegie’s lessons dialed:

  • Always smile
  • Speak with respect
  • Never publically criticize anyone
  • Learn people’s names

Asian airlines have figured out how to woo the world with great service.  They smile, go out of their way to help, they speak respectfully (it seems) at all times, and they often learn the names of small children aboard—winning parents’ loyalty. 

But Dale Carnegie can be used to America’s advantage as well.  With friendlier service, slightly increased fares and improved in-flight entertainment systems, U.S. airlines could give the best in the world a run for their money.  More loyal travelers will mean more money for American carriers.  And more money will mean more jobs for the U.S. industry.

If you’re working for an American airline or you know somebody who is, share this with him or her.   Dale Carnegie lessons for the industry might sound like an overly simple solution to a very big problem.  But it’s a strong step in the right direction.  And it would work.

Ranking of the World’s Top Airlines 2012