Friday, January 20, 2012

Airline priorities

First impressions about service issues can sometimes be misleading, especially if you don't understand aspects of traffic flow.  Here was my first impression, and then something I learned afterward.

We start with this scene of a Delta airlines gate area.  It happens to be at the Atlanta airport, but the same configuration is used elsewhere.  (See the Memphis set-up below.) Note the sign indicating two lanes of traffic, "general boarding" and "Sky Priority."  Note, too, the special carpet with "Sky Priority" printed on it.  As you can see, the two lanes go to exactly the same door.

Here's what happens.  When a plane is being boarded, passengers who have the "Sky Priority" status are boarded first and directed to use the right-hand lane.  Indeed, a ribbon is stretched across to prohibit entry through the other lane.  When those passengers have finished entering the plane, the ribbon is moved over to block the priority lane, and the general boarders use the other lane.

I asked my gate attendant why this was done.  She giggled and said, "It is kind of silly, but it makes the Priority passengers feel important."

Priority route

General route
I know this is not a big deal in the scheme of things, but let's calculate how much money Delta spent on those signs, the fancy rugs, the barricades, and so on.  I wondered, "Have they really done research to show that passengers care about having a special lane?"  Early boarding, sure.  But in an industry that never makes a profit, why spend money on something silly like this?

But then I talked to a friend who is on the board of an airline company.  He said, "It is all about traffic control at the gate.  If you don't have a physical separation for those classes of customers who are entitled to early boarding, everybody else just piles up at the gate.  It slows things down, plus the passengers who have paid for or otherwise earned priority status get shoved aside.  Those loyal (and mainly full-fare business) passengers are very important to an airline, and they value unfettered early boarding.  So, we incur a little extra expense to give them higher quality service."

1 comment:

Susan Carr said...

Congratulations, Paul, and thank you for your leadership and support all these years. I, too, look forward to your reflections on future projects. Your observations and teaching have been relevant and insightful, regardless of the community. Girls' soccer, cow bells on Storrow Drive, Sky Priority floor mats, oatmeal in Orlando—I've learned from it all. Thanks again!