Why the Airline Experience can be Frustrating and BewilderingWe’ve all had experiences where we feel like we’ve taken one step forward and one step back. That feeling of being right back where you started and no better off can leave you flat.

Working with clients to improve their customer experiences means I have a lot of travel related customer experiences. A recent one is another example of just why people generally dread air travel. While it’s nice to see when companies try to improve things, it’s very frustrating when they can’t seem to look at the whole picture. If I were a teacher, I wouldn’t even issue this journey a proper grade; I’d have to mark it incomplete. Trying to improve the customer experience without knowledge, tools, a guide and a plan is simply shooting in the dark.

The following are examples of why it’s so important to understand the entire customer journey from an emotional point of view.

The frequent flyer sign up – do they really want you?

I can’t be the first traveler who decided to sign up for a frequent flyer program after I’ve bought my ticket, but before my first flight (so I can be sure to get mileage credit.) I wonder if the airlines have done any research on this to see when in the travel process that people sign up for their programs. You would think that they might create an elegant side process to do this while purchasing a ticket or on check-in. Well not in this case.

So while purchasing my ticket, I open a new browser tab and elect to sign up. I go through the multi-step process of providing my information. When I get to the end, I find out that I’ve created a (airline).com account but not a frequent flyer program account (which is the path I chose). With this airline, they’re separate accounts. So now I log in with my new credentials and provide some more information and get to the end of that process and I’m left at an innocuous screen with no frequent flyer number!! Now, I log into my frequent flyer account and I can’t find the number. You would think that the airline would make this obvious. I wound up getting the number from my confirmation email, yikes!!


It’s clear that no one in the organization asked the questions:
“How do we make the sign up process easy?”
“If we must have two separate account types (which is a completely puzzling and debatable point anyway), why not provide the option to establish both at the same time with a simple click?”
“How about signing people up at check-in, how do we make that easy and populate their frequent flyer information for them?”
“Are we providing the customers with the information they need in an easy way?”

Unspoken Impression

“Signing up customers for our loyalty program is a necessary evil, even though it generates millions to our bottom line and allows us to market to them directly. Let’s just get it done with a process that’s easy for us to implement.”

Feelings generated

Frustration, confusion, indifference, bewilderment

Departure lounge – spending a lot of money to get it only partly right

The departure concourse at New York LaGuardia is like many modern airport facilities, upgraded with gourmet dining options and mall like shops. The airlines and the airport authority have clearly spent some money to update the departure gate area. There are information displays, cocktail style tables with nice lighting, plenty of charging outlets, and tethered iPads that can be used for free to access the internet and order food and drinks.

One thing that you will notice is that the food and beverage service items are left behind on the tables when people are through with them. People then will not use those spaces. So it’s cool that you can order food and drinks to be delivered to your seating place, but not cool that no one swings by to see if you want anything else or to clean up.

With all the money that’s been spent to upgrade this departure concourse, the sound was horrible. It’s loud and the sound is bouncing everywhere. The sound quality of the flight announcements was grossly distorted. When combined with the heavy accent of the customer service agent, the experience was like a comedy sketch poking fun at the subway system. Customers were gathering near the desk attempting to decipher what was being said.


Ordering food from your seat is a nice feature, but it doesn’t replace good service. You wouldn’t equip a luxury car with lousy tires just because you added a premium sound system.
Sound is one of our primary senses. It’s as if no one considered how the area might sound when full of people waiting to depart, listening to music, each other, and flight announcements.

Unspoken Impression

“We’ll provide a nice seating area and free internet access and we’ll be able to sell a lot more food and beverages. People will think this is a great step forward.”

Arriving on the ground – passing the buck

We landed at our destination airport and pulled to a stop short of the gate. One of the flight crew let us know that even though we landed first, for reasons unknown to him, two other flights were being handled at the gates before us as there is not enough ground support to handle everything at the same time. When we finally taxied into the gate, we waited a long time for the jet way to link the plane and the door to open. The flight attendant apologized that we were again waiting for the ground staff.


Weird stuff like this happens. Passing the buck to let people know it wasn’t your fault doesn’t make anyone feel better but you – because you think you’ve deflected some responsibility.

Unspoken Impression

“I’ve done my part; I can’t help it if someone doesn’t do theirs. Don’t blame me.”

Feelings generated

Frustration, bewilderment

When I experienced these gaps between what I expected and what was delivered, the emotions were generally those of frustration and bewilderment. Frustration that the company I was doing business with required more of me than they should; whether that’s time, effort, or patience. I was bewildered that no one was thinking about the experience being delivered or decided it wasn’t worth improving, i.e. “you’re not worth it.”

Airlines in particular have to deliver an experience that is complex with many moving parts that have to be delivered consistently. This naturally leads to a very rational focus on processes and procedures that ensure a safe and on time delivery of customers and their belongings between point A and B. This understandable emphasis on process can often mean that delivering an excellent customer experience takes a lower priority.

Without an understanding of the entire customer journey from a subconscious and emotional point of view, companies, especially airlines in this example, cannot expect to deliver consistently engaging experiences that deliver value.

At Beyond Philosophy we conduct a process called Customer Mirrors that help companies understand what it feels like to do business with them from a customer’s perspective. It also helps to identify what information customers take in to form their opinions. We look at the entire customer journey from both a rational and subconscious/emotional point of view. The results provide an excellent starting point to understand the level of consistency in the experience.

As you can see, when the customer experience feels inconsistent or incomplete it’s a good indicator that the company involved doesn’t really understand how their delivered experiences connect to customer emotions and then how those emotions connect to value and business results.

Chris Frawley | Beyond Philosophy

Christopher Frawley is a customer experience consultant with over 25 years of outstanding results for numerous firms in varied customer facing management disciplines.
Beyond Philosophy provide consulting, specialised research & training from our Global Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, USA.