The airlines are probably better than any other industry at angering their public. Ticket prices fluctuate wildly, flights are deliberately oversold, and schedules can change with no obviously acceptable explanation.
But, when push comes to shove, passengers only care about two things: the price of the ticket, and being on time. Once the ticket is purchased, the bar for satisfaction is actually pretty low. Sure, folks want the free drinks; and nobody likes paying to check a bag; and friendly employees go a long way toward minimizing negative social media hits. But the airlines have the data to back up one fact: on-time performance trumps all, and nowadays, the airlines are required to publish on their websites the performance reliability of each flight.
Pilots have several tools they can use on this front. Aside from getting the airplane ready on time and taking care of maintenance and other issues as quickly as possible, actually pushing back from the gate on time should be a major goal. The schedules are built with the expectation that flights will leave on time, so push-back crews, gate agents, and other support personnel are staffed accordingly. If you encounter a delay, it’s not uncommon to have the delay magnified by the need to wait for a push-back crew to take care of another flight. After all, there’s no point in making multiple flights late just to accommodate one.
Flying the flight plan is tool number two. Almost all airlines fly what’s called a cost index (CI), which is a tool for measuring the most optimal way to operate a flight. There are times when flying as fast as possible and burning the extra fuel is the most cost-effective way to fly. Likewise, there are times when flying slow and minimizing fuel burn is the best decision. Before you get the flight plan, the CI decision is made by a combination of the dispatcher and the main computer systems that track a flight. Airplanes that are behind schedule are usually flight-planned to fly fast to make up some of the time.
Flying the schedule factors in as well. When you land early, especially in a busy hub, you run the risk of a gate not being ready or available upon your arrival, and this can actually make you even later as ATC and the company move you around to kill time. I’ve had the misfortune of landing early only to find that the gate wasn’t ready, and the subsequent taxiing that took place had us actually arrive more than 30 minutes late. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do to avoid this problem, but if you can, you should.
The biggest difference we can make in the passenger experience is in the way we communicate with the passengers about what’s going on. When a crew doesn’t keep the folks who pay their salaries abreast of what is happenings, the negative comments start to show up immediately on social media. Further, thanks to smart phones, everyone has access to your company’s app, website, and other data points. Gone are the days when a crew would make multiple announcements en route to the destination, because with apps and on-board entertainment systems, just about everyone has a viewable map to see exactly where they are at any point in time.
Timely announcements at the gate prior to departure or during long departure delays go a long way, because the view out the window is so limited. This is especially true during ground delay programs (GDPs). On the other end, long taxi delays getting to a gate can be immensely frustrating to passengers because of tight connections or a need to get somewhere at a certain time. Most airlines have a policy requiring an update on set time schedules during delays.
The real go-getters are the pilots who will walk up to the gate house and make an announcement from the gate prior to boarding, especially for long delays. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but it does make a great impression on people.
I recently flew on an airline I don’t work for, and we were delayed getting to our gate because we were early and the flight at our gate was a few minutes late getting out. The public address announcements from the cockpit were not very good. They didn’t sound polished, and they didn’t sound confident. Making good PAs isn’t hard, but it does take practice. Practice while in your car or in the shower, and do it until it doesn’t sound stilted or fragmented. You’d be amazed at just how far some solid, accurate information will go, especially for nervous flyers.—Chip Wright