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In-Flight Ethics, Etiquette, and Customer Experience

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal published the article “So Who Gets the Armrest?” a light piece that reporter Scott McCartney summarized as the “Ethics and Etiquette To Survive Cramped Seats, Crying Kids, and Stinky Food at 30,000 feet.” At its core, this is a human interest story that ponders questions such as “You’re in the middle seat, between two strangers. Who gets the armrests?”

The answers are revealing, especially former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune’s response to the question “Do you recline your seat?” to which he answers “Live with it. The recline is your space.” Meaning, tough for the person preparing that big slide show presentation on a laptop behind you.

So who get's the arm rest? Wall Street Journal

Illustrations by Jonathan Carlson, The Wall Street Journal.

There are other insightful thoughts from veteran flight attendants, frequent flyers, and even an ethics professor, all well aware that our generally well behaved populace becomes rude and uncharacteristically mean when sharing cramped space during a long flight.

What surprises me in this piece is not that passengers can become inconsiderate to one another under the right conditions, or that people complain too much, but that an airline hasn’t differentiated themselves by using these facts to their advantage. The responses from industry insiders in the article imply that the onus is on the passengers to sort it out amongst themselves, but what if the airlines got involved? Could they improve the customer experience and build more customer loyalty without throwing mounds of cash at the problem?

I think they can, and not in the most expected of ways. Perhaps the airlines can address this problem without redesigning their passenger seat layouts (costly), and instead by redesigning how they deliver information, set expectations, and offer incentives (not as costly).

Inform and Educate

In the United States, where I live and travel most frequently, the cultural norms regarding basic manners and consideration for others varies quite a bit. While it’s not the job of the airlines to educate passengers on proper manners, they could provide some ground rules that make traveling better for everyone. The best place to start is by informing and educating during the typical cabin safety demonstration. Reminding passengers that they are sharing the cabin space and are “in it together” for the next few hours could go a long way towards improving the customer experience without spending a lot of cash. Including this information during the cabin safety presentation, inside airline magazines, and on signage behind each seat could help. Imagine a small sign in front of you reading, “don’t forget to return your seat to the upright position during meal service so the person behind you doesn’t spill their hot coffee all over themselves.”

Design a Passenger Based Incentive System

Incentive programs could also be established to reward considerate passengers. Imagine completing a short survey at the end of each flight asking you to rate the consideration of those around you. Was the person seated immediately in-front of you, A) Very considerate, B) Somewhat considerate, C) Not considerate, D) Playing video games with the volume turned to 10 the entire flight. Joking aside, positive scores could lead to points that can be redeemed in miles programs (which are costly), but also in softer benefits like early boarding privileges, or reserved seating in prime cabin locations reserved for highly-considerate passengers.

While these programs would cost the airlines something, it would be cheaper than removing rows in the planes to create more passenger space, and it would address the problem from a different angle, one that would theoretically improve the experience for passengers.

How would people feel about these types of programs? Would passengers balk at airlines attempting to control our behavior? Maybe, but airlines already limit behavior for our safety. We are instructed not to unbuckle our seat belts and stand up before the plane is parked at the gate, or not to use our iPods during take off, and we listen. Maybe airlines should start suggesting behaviors that improve customer experiences, and then maybe they will see a little more customer loyalty and an improved brand perception, and ultimately, a little less complaining.