I love America. One of my favourite books starts that way, John Keegan’s “Fields of Battle: The Wars For North America.” One of the things I love about America is the incredible drive for entrepreneurship, the idea that if you have an idea, well, follow it all the way through. You can be innovative in any market, anywhere (assuming government hasn’t enforced some monopoly), and if what you have to sell is a better product/market fit, including better customer service (see “Zappos” in the dictionary), you can succeed.
So given the above, I have struggled for years to understand why the US airlines have a quality of service – everything from how they treat passengers at the airport and on the airplane, in all classes of service, to the design of seats and the lounges – that is so far below those of prime European and Asian airlines.
What triggered this thought, besides my regular long-haul overseas flights, is a shower. I flew into Newark Airport early this morning, spent all day running around Manhattan, and then took the train back into Newark for my evening flight. As a Platinum member, I had access to the lounge, called the “Presidents Club” by Continental, and looked forward to a nice hot shower.
I did get my shower, it was hot, refreshing, and I felt better about finishing my day, before boarding a 10.5 hour flight. But there is no doubt in my mind that the quality of the shower, and the rest of the lounge, falls far far below what I have seen in Europe and in Asia… even over a decade ago. Newark Airport is one of Continental’s main hubs, so the lounge there is its top-of-the-line lounge; they even tout the awards it has won (although the announcement next to it about spending $500MM to refurbish the lounges makes one wonder). The lounge is nice, no question. The shower room was cold and sterile, the walls bare and industrial; the power ports throughout the lounge do not work; and the food is simple but there are no real meals. In other words, it is not remotely like what I recall of the British Airways lounges in JFK and Heathrow – even before the creation of the Terraces Lounges, and not even counting the First Class Lounge. I used those lounged over a decade ago. It is not even in the same class. Needless to say, it isn’t even in the same league as the lounges of the Asian airlines – Cathay Pacific and Singapore, notably, as well as others.
I have heard, and have said myself, that the Asian and European airlines have an “ethic of service” that Americans do not. But that is simply not true. Americans have far less patience for being treated poorly than Europeans, who are used to obtuse bureaucrats. Further, Americans excel at competition, creating great customer service differentiation opportunities, whereas the Europeans protect their national champions, especially air carriers like British, Lufthansa, Air France, from any form of competition.
So what is it? What do US-based carriers continue to underwhelm, despite real competition and opportunities to exceed?