To this day, one of the most enjoyable blog posts I’ve ever written was about Starbucks and what a good job they were doing “seeing” their customers. More recently, I wrote a similar post about US Airways that patted them on the back for doing the right thing (by just saying “sorry”). Unfortunately, after a disappointing experience flying with United Airlines this past weekend, I felt compelled to write a post that takes a more “constructive feedback” approach.
This past weekend my wife, Melanie, and I flew out to a friend’s wedding in Bodega Bay, CA (just north of San Francisco). Because we had purchased our tickets using frequent flier miles, we ended up flying through Denver, CO coming and going. I mention this only because it meant that we had a total of two legs to each of our flights and thus gave us the opportunity to “enjoy” the boarding process four times over the course of four days.
While we had a lovely weekend at the wedding, on the trip back to Austin, my wife and I started talking about how annoying it was that on each of our four flights we ended up in boarding Group 7. If you are unfamiliar with flying, most planes these days board by “groups.” Some airlines like JetBlue still board by row but most use groups because it allows the airline to spread people out into different sections of the plane as they board to expedite the process. One of the downsides to group boarding is that if you are unlucky enough to be one of the last groups to board, you often end up having to gate check your carry on luggage (drop off/pick up your bags as you get on/off the plane). You also end up having to stand around in the gate area for an extra 15-20 minutes. Needless to say that because we were in Group 7 (read: last) on each of the four flights, we ended up having to gate check our bag on three of the four flights.
So here’s the point of my post. Given the fact that I used frequent flier miles to fly — 50,000 of them to be exact — why not reward me by putting my wife and me in Group 1. Or at least Group 2 or 3 since the first group is set aside for the most frequent of frequent fliers. While you’re at it, how about offering a complimentary cocktail or purchased snack as a thank you for flying so much with you. After all, I did earn those miles in 1,000 to 3,000 treks at a time and I do have a choice as to whom I fly. Doing either of these things would cost United next to nothing. Instead, United’s actions send a message that say, “you’re riding for free versus paying like the other customers on the plane and as a result, we are going to punish you by putting you at the back of the bus.” Huh? Loyalty never felt so bad.
Tying this up with a bow, the point I’m trying to get across is that brands wonder why their loyalty programs are unsuccessful (or if they are successful, they end up giving away the farm in discounts and perqs). Instead, why not get more creative? One of my favorite examples of this is Miss Shirley’s Restaurant in Baltimore (hat tip to Jason Falls for bringing this one to my attention) that allows the customer that is the mayor to cut the line on Sunday’s during their very popular brunch. This costs the restaurant zero dollars. Or the food trucks in Los Angeles and Austin that allow customers who follow them on Twitter to order off the menu items. Again, the cost is zero.
Does this mean I won’t fly United again? Probably not. I’m not that stubborn. But as someone that has made up his mind to be a little more organized in 2013 about travel with an eye toward achieving status, I will likely try and keep most of my flights to a couple of carriers. There’s a very good chance that United won’t be part of this consideration set because their actions speak louder than words. And as you can see, when I’m happy about something (ahem, Starbucks and U.S. Air), I am more than happy to sing it from the rooftops!