On a wing and a smile

The campaign calls Canada a country of people who like to go their own way.

The campaign calls Canada a country of people who like to go their own way.

Then it offers them a way to go that’s ‘all their own.’

From a company that enjoys a thinly disguised monopoly of available domestic air routes, this is another way of saying that when you fly with Air Canada, you’re on your own.

Back in a Globe and Mail article on Jan. 7, Air Canada president/CEO Montie Brewer laid out his vision for transforming Canada’s legacy airline into a ‘new breed of carrier that will retain many of the features of a full-service airline while operating as a nimble, low-cost carrier.’

He wanted Air Canada to be known as the airline industry’s leading innovator in pricing, cabin comfort, and subscription passes. At the same time, he encouraged customers to think of their travel experience as ‘customizable,’ by introducing a pay-for-perks pricing system.

Of course what Air Canada now calls perks are what we used to get at no extra cost. According to Mr. Brewer, this ‘unbundling’ of the airline’s traditional offer is a necessary response to competitive pressure from low-cost carriers.

Mr. Brewer is someone who, as a boy, literally spent his spare time reading airline schedules. His boss Robert Milton has made similar statements about his own boyhood obsession with aircraft. What neither of them seems fascinated with is the feelings of passengers.

In Air Canada’s world, shareholders rule. So the CEO and the chairman focus on equipment, schedules, load factors and cost control. Customers are somewhere at the bottom, duking it out for last place with employees.

Anybody who travels regularly has more than one story of what a terrible experience it can be to fly with AC. My partner was once turned away at the gate while the plane was still moored to the jetway (‘Sorry, the rules are the rules and you are late!’). I know someone who was buckled into her seat on a Thursday evening flight from Montreal to Toronto only to find out that there were no pilots available. By the time the pilots arrived an hour later, the ground crew had been called to another flight. Another hour on the ground and the rage in the cabin was at boiling point.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Air Canada experience is the lack of simple human warmth exuded by its employees. This is not a happy crowd. They are not owners. They are union members. And they took wage cuts in 2005 while their executives harvested significant gains in ACE stock options. That translates into a surly culture – and icy service.

Then there is WestJet. WestJet is an inversion of the Air Canada model: first in line are employees, then customers. The thinking is that if employees are happy, the customers will be too, and keeping customers happy means ROI for investors.

WestJet executives are not afraid to roll up their sleeves: President/CEO Clive Beddoe is famous for helping clean the planes that he flies on. Pilots pitch in as well. They are not just being nice: They are reducing gate turn, which reduces passenger wait time. And saves costs. They are also demonstrating that they are people just like you and me.

They are interested in cabin comfort too, but they ask their customers to define it. You can visit the website and participate in a simple survey which breaks the flight experience into specific ‘comfort’ components. The significant difference is that WestJet considers the emotional as well as the functional components of the brand experience, covering everything from leg room to the way you are treated by the attendants.

WestJet is famous for its focus on culture, fun and the basics of human relations. It has a department whose job it is to keep employees from taking things too seriously. Imagine. Getting paid to keep your peers happy.

The spreadsheet mavens over at AC would no doubt scoff at this preoccupation with the ‘emotional’ dimensions of the travel experience. But here’s the thing: It matters.

At a recent event celebrating Canada’s best-managed brands, WestJet presented some very interesting research data. It found that the experiential attribute that drove customer loyalty the most was not the price, or the equipment or the schedules.

It was the treatment they received from frontline employees. A simple smile, they found, went a long way in alleviating passenger stress.

Now tell me, how much would that cost your brand?

Will Novosedlik is partner at Toronto-based Chemistry, a brand collaborative which links strategy to communication, organizational performance and customer experience. He can be reached at will@chemistrycorp.com.