Airlines Under Fire: Reasserting the Miracle of Air Travel

Beyond better snacks and friendlier staff, recent bad press should inspire airlines to create an employee culture and customer experience that recaptures the wonder of flight.

Airlines Under Fire: Reasserting the Miracle of Air Travel


It’s all the rage — bashing airlines for treating people like cattle. The media crackle with accounts of hours stuck on the tarmac, rude attendants, lost bags and onboard fistfights. With good reason, being beaten up and dragged off a plane is condemned as deplorable customer service — a debacle exacerbated by a CEO who seemed surprised to learn that passengers are human.


But let’s be frank: The business of rocketing people thousands of miles from home in mere hours is nothing less than miraculous.


While cruising across the Atlantic in 5 or 6 hours at 35,000 feet, I sometimes think of the sailing ship Mayflower, which crossed from England to Massachusetts in 1620 with 102 passengers — about the typical number for an Embraer jet or an early 737. Passengers set sail on September 9 and didn’t set foot on land again until November 11 — nearly 10 weeks at sea.


Next time you ease into your cushy seat and start fiddling with the overhead airflow, consider that the Mayflower passengers were stuffed in the ‘tween deck — an airless space less than five feet high — and instead of a few hours with a boring salesman, they lived for 65 days smashed among chests, children and chamber pots. Miffed that you only get peanuts and soda on a two-hour flight? By the end of their trip, the Mayflower passengers lived on slimy water from the bottom of casks and showed signs of scurvy — bleeding gums and bad breath.


Sure, bossy attendants make you turn off this and sit like that. But when the Mayflower passengers sickened and vomited in the rolling seas, one sailor cursed and laughed at them, boasting that he’d be casting half of them overboard before they reached the terminal…er, the New World. As it turned out, that sailor died of an agonizing disease and was himself the first tossed overboard.


On top of these harrowing conditions, the physical and psychological punishment passengers endured was, Nathanial Philbrick’s prize-winning 2006 account Mayflower puts it, “compounded by the terrifying lack of information they possessed about their ultimate destination.” Think about that the next time you’re online planning a flight.


Now, I don’t mean to sound like parents who use the “children are starving somewhere” line to get their kids to eat dinner. Just being able to imagine worse conditions does not obligate you to endure bad service and stale coffee. But we should at least consider that the airline industry moves millions of passengers daily, with the three major alliances — StarAlliance, OneWorld and SkyTeam — operating around 50,000 flights every day — most without incident.


I once awoke on a freezing February morning in New York, took a taxi to LaGuardia, flew non-stop to Tampa, drove across the bay for a meeting in St. Petersburg, stole off for an hour to a sunny beach with my cuffs rolled up and dress shirt off, then caught a flight home and was back in my Manhattan bed by midnight. The next morning I smiled at the grains of sand in my shoes, tiny testaments to the magic of air travel.


Humans have the capacity to take momentous accomplishments for granted. If airline employees are discounting customer centrism, it may not be because they don’t care, but because they’ve lost sight of the awesomeness of what they do. If this is the case, the antidote to anti-airline outrage must involve a reaffirmation of the magic of flight. Airlines should make it a priority to rekindle the wonder of air travel, to find ways to engage passengers and employees in a shared feeling of pride, purpose and excitement.


Every time even seasoned travelers step aboard an airliner, they should be reminded that they are participating in a miraculous experience. Perhaps they will discover something new about the physics of flight or the technology that makes it possible, or learn about their pilots as people and as leaders, or be given the means to view the land speeding by below or the horizon up ahead in real-time, or be greeted to a culturally differentiated terminal experience when they land that highlights the distance they’ve traveled and the adventure to come. Whatever the means, airlines must find ways to create experiences that capture the excitement of air travel to instill pride in employees and loyalty among customers.


The recent bad press should do more than lead to better snacks and friendlier staff. It should re-energize airline cultures and inspire innovative air carriers to find ways to embed a sense of wonder in the service they provide,  so that employees and passengers can feel it — and media can respond and celebrate it.


About the Author

Claude Singer, Ph.D. is Brandsinger’s Managing Partner. He has served in executive roles at branding firms Siegelvision, Siegel+Gale and Lippincott, and previously held VP positions in corporate and employee communications at Aetna and Chemical Banking Corporation. He holds a doctorate in History from University of Washington.