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Connectivity not-so-much…

February 26th, 2014

Kinny Cheng

Mary Kirby touches on in-flight connectivity:

Inflight connectivity provider OnAir’s services have become the subject of mounting complaints. Some passengers dislike the MB data packages sold by OnAir, and consider this pricing model to be outdated and inadequate for their data requirements (and they’ve made their discontent known on social media). But others have complained about not being able to connect to the network in-flight.

(Scroll down to the first comment in the above post for an official response from OnAir’s representative.)

In the air, I haven’t been online as much as I was a year ago (trying to get more offline work done!)

But I do concur that such problems have been plaguing the OnAir operators, including issues with connectivity and poor transfer speeds.

With those extravagant price tags, which vary across the different airlines, you’d be forgiven for being critical about the decision to go online — and even more so when the service’s reliability is in question.

Depending on which part of the world you’re from, expectations for in-flight connectivity can differ greatly. But ultimately, customers demand a high level of usability (or reliability) for the money they pay.

Variables, such as ping times and data (traffic) allowances, become irrelevant if a service provider can’t even get the basics right.

The will of transparency.

February 25th, 2014

Kinny Cheng

Inevitably, this will become a trend that corporations will need to follow.

The reason is simple: people demand straight answers.

And how can they? Simple — through social media, and especially for those who have access to it anywhere and anytime (we have the scaling economies of smartphone makers and greater accessibility to mobile data and Wi-Fi to thank for that!)

In the age of social media, drumming up a press release or announcement and simply making that publicly available on a web site will no longer cut it.

Instead, company representatives responsible for dealing with the public will now have to take a spread-of-gunfire worth of ad-hoc questions, and provide adequate answers in a timely and appropriate manner — ideally, concise one-to-two-sentence answers that’s easily understood by the generally-inquisitive laymen.

As always, the key with social media is to engage and interact. Even in cases like these, it’s important to maintain virtual composure in getting the message across.

The Asiana Airlines Flight 214 incident

As Mary Kirby, of Runway Girl fame, noted in her recent write-up:

Last year in the aftermath of the Asiana Flight 214 crash, when it became evident that economy class seats had collapsed on each other and left the tracks; and evacuation slides had deployed inside the cabin, pinning two flight attendants, some journalists ran into roadblocks when trying to cover the Boeing 777-200ER accident.

Who manufactured the seats? Who manufactured the slides? The answers to these questions weren’t readily available. Why? Because there is a huge lack of transparency in the aircraft interiors world, and seat companies, slide manufacturers and other interiors providers enjoy a level of secrecy (and protection) that other parts of the airline industry can only envy.

The reason for this is simple, says a top PR representative with a major legacy airline who – somewhat ironically – asked not to be named. “The specs that we lay out in a press release [about new interiors] are all about our customer experience; the things that get into that spec are not as important as the spec itself so things like seat pitch, what the cabin configuration is going to be, the elements being updated and upgraded – those are passenger comfort and passenger conditions that are important elements from our perspective, but manufacturers have different perspectives [on disclosure],” he says.

“We don’t believe in disclosing who all our vendors are. Obviously [such disclosure] has an impact to vendors and their bottom lines. They’re free to disclose [the information] once we’ve made announcements.” Of course, few of them rarely do.

(The entire article is a good, and recommended, read.)

While this was a case for those investigative individuals wanting the whole truth, the issue of transparency was clearly an issue. The usual suspects for such lack of clarity are present: stakeholder protection (e.g. secrecy); bottom-line ambiguity; and greater flexibility in product marketing and support efforts.

When it is all business-as-usual, the above points would seemingly not matter so much because customers are only concerned about the end-product’s overall worth in dollars and cents. But when matters relating to liability, legality and compensation are brought forward, and compounded by the social media effect, the situation can become very sticky.

Arguably, and by right, the cabin product manufacturers only need to answer to Asiana Airlines on such matters. But because of the aftermath’s detailed photographic evidence, which was made public via Twitter, it makes things difficult for the airline to deal with on virtually all fronts.

It can only be beneficial for all the parties involved come crunch time if the proper efforts towards transparency were being undertaken.

The Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET702 incident

Last week, Ethiopian Airlines experienced a case of hijacking on one of its flights. The co-pilot of Flight ET702, flying from Addis Ababa to Rome, had allegedly taken control of the airborne aircraft, right after the captain left the cockpit for his lavatory break, and subsequently having the door locked behind him.

The information became public knowledge right after the aircraft transmitted a “Squawk 7500” transponder code. Initially, a handful of aviation enthusiasts spotted this, and questioned others about it over Twitter (myself included). It did not become a trending subject until a few hours later, when the aircraft had veered off its intended course and headed towards Switzerland. People who followed this closely was able to track the aircraft’s movement via either FlightRadar24 or Plane Finder (both online services offer a public, free-to-use aircraft tracking service).

Interestingly, almost none of the official news agencies had picked up the story — it was late Sunday afternoon/evening in North America, past-midnight in Europe, and early morning in Asia. News was literally being created by active Twitter users who have been sharing the details publicly as they broke.

After the aircraft was given the all-clear to touch down in Geneva, the radio transmission between the co-pilot and Geneva Airport’s air traffic control (ATC) was also made public (via LiveATC, which offers a near-live playback of such transmissions). As more details came to light via the different channels of information, people who followed the ordeal closely were able to piece the story together with a fairly good level of certainty.

By this time, Ethiopian Airlines — a company that uses social media, and is on both Facebook and Twitter — has not made any comments relating to any hijacking attempt on their aircraft. A major fail considering the rest-of-the-world has all the details of what went down, albeit unofficially.

Simpliflying, an aviation marketing consultancy, tweeted this towards the end of the Ethiopian event:

3 Rules:
1) Have an SM presence on at least FB and Twitter.
2) Set clear expectations of response times.
3) Have a crisis mgmt plan. #ET702

While I wasn’t exactly glued to Twitter the entire time of the incident, it was clear that the Ethiopian Airlines failed to utilise its social media presence to, possibly, inform the world of what was exactly happening. Only later did the airline publicise a press release on the incident, but later withdrawn (due to lack of information that the public already knew about) and re-released with minor corrections.

The lack of willingness to be (a bit more) transparent with its stakeholders, especially in a concerning case like this, and utilise the tools available to alleviate a possible public relations disaster, is counterproductive considering what could have been.

Takeaways

As the saying goes, “honesty is the best policy”.

For corporates, it is easier said than done. But at the same time, those individuals involved in public relations and communications must not use this as an excuse to bend, exaggerate or sugar-coat the message which needs to be seen or heard.

Before social media arrived, controlling the flow of information that went public was still somewhat possible. Today, if one was to try and get away with it, the consequential backlash will most certainly be a given, measured by the (im)proper actions that proceed the situation warranting it.

I am a strong believer in transparency, even in situations where it can seem extremely difficult to reach out to the general public and (most likely) hurt the corporate image. For every situation, there is a way. No one scenario is ever the same. But beginning with the right concept of tackling the issue is a good start.

Again, what most people do not understand is that corporate communication in the social media world is a two-way highway — that is, heavy and fast-paced engagement and interaction.

Mobile technology, airports, and the passenger experience.

February 22nd, 2014

Kinny Cheng

Ryan Ghee, writing for Future Travel Experience:

Having previously relied on airports and airlines as the sole source of travel-related information, all of a sudden passengers could pro-actively take it into their own hands, quite literally, to access the information they want exactly when they need it.

This can only be a good thing in an age of “information always at your fingertips”.

But there seems to be a growing concern…

In the years since, passengers have come to expect a more personalised travel experience, with information specific to their own journey and their own preferences very much in demand. In some instances, airports and airlines have taken it upon themselves to provide interactive, engaging, more personal experiences that leverage mobile technology, but increasingly, third party companies are getting involved. So, are these ‘third parties’ actually the ones redefining the airport experience and, if so, should airports and airlines be concerned?

The article continues on by pointing out key examples for both sides of the argument.

But analysing this can be very straight-forward.

If a third-party has established the means by which passengers or other stakeholders can ascertain the necessary information for their airport experience, the next task is to check how well this is done.

In the case where Google is able to provide details for Emirates Airline and Singapore Airlines flights — which I would rate as a very handy, always-accessible and well-presented service (simply type the flight number into Google search, and viola!) — and interactive maps of airport terminals via Google Maps, there is simply no need for developers of airport apps to duplicate this functionality when this high-quality user experience cannot be emulated or bettered.

For airline or airports that are not serviced by Google, passengers would then need to fall back on to the next-most logical information sources — that is, the airline and/or the airport web site.

Generally speaking, mobile apps are great ideas. On top of offering a plethora of valuable information and functionality, it gets a presence on the home screen of the passenger’s smartphone. While this one-tap-access can be truly handy, the user experience offered by the app can be a make-or-break scenario.

I have had my fair share of experiences with mobile apps by different airports and airlines. In most cases, I am left startled by just how cluttered, useless and un-user-friendly they can be! If it was something that only the app could help me with, I’ll bear with it — otherwise, the app gets deleted immediately and I fire up the mobile web browser and try my luck there instead.

The following rings very true:

According to Chandra Jacobs, Co-founder and CEO of tripchi, […] “What we’re seeing today is a highly fragmented market when it comes to airport mobile solutions, which are developed in stovepipes, and are therefore reliant on a huge marketing budget to remind customers to use the app.

“Secondly, an airport’s core competency is not app development (whether it’s web or mobile) – it’s delivering safe and efficient air travel to a traveler.

We all know what airports are (supposed to be) good at — and developing a smartphone mobile app to facilitate a passenger’s journey is probably not one of them. Every airline, every airport, has their own take on how and what to present in their apps. This introduces inconsistencies in usability and expectations, which then becomes an annoyance.

Why not let third-parties develop solutions, even if these were partial, to the problem? Like what Google has begun doing, by offering up-to-date flight information and indoor maps for airport terminals, it will eventually become commonplace whenever a reference becomes necessary.

For the airport or airline, scaling economies is a no-brainer — but not unless the app can offer a user experience that’s uniquely outstanding, which would most probably cost way too much. For passengers, googling is fast and direct, while also getting presented with information that is consistent and reliable.

By all means, I love apps — but only if they do what they are supposedly designed for, very well. Not even Changi Airport, the most awarded airport in the world, could create a mobile app that is as outstanding as its world-class facilities and services (to be fair, it is packing with information — but presented rather poorly on a visual level).

So leave the hard work to those who can do it better than properly — or, make sure the in-house (or outsourced) development follow proper guidelines in design and usability testing. No half-empty, half-full jobs will ever suffice when it comes to creating one-to-one service encounters (think social media engagement).

Be realistic. Never oversell.

February 21st, 2014

Kinny Cheng

Laura Northrup, for The Consumerist:

Spirit Airlines is one of the fastest-growing airlines in the country. No, really. Sure, they’re a regular contender in our Worst Company in America tournament, and it seems like everyone who has tried the airline complains about the experience. But many of them can’t resist their rock-bottom fares, and just keep coming back.

It’s all about managing expectations.

Not everyone will fly with a low-cost carrier.

But if you give people good-enough reasons, some will take the plunge because they know what they are in for.

What frightens us most is the unknown — and especially more so when it involves a purchase experience that requires greater effort by the individual.

Why China Eastern will not pass as a world-class airline.

February 3rd, 2014

Kinny Cheng

Late one December evening, I was pondering my options for a quick trip to South Korea in the coming January. As always, my search for a reasonably-economical fare started with Skyscanner, being the ultimate litmus test for travel on any given sets of dates.

Timing considerations were one of the priorities for this booking — that is, the total travel and transit time required for the return trip. Ultimately, I came across an itinerary that worked best with a reasonable price tag attached.

It was with China Eastern, an airline that I’ve yet to fly with. Admittedly, because I had status with SkyTeam (Sky Priority Gold), there was a lesser hesitation on my part to take the leap of faith with this China-based airline. So without further ado, the ticket was purchased through an online agent, and my confirmation and itinerary subsequently e-mailed to me within 24 hours of payment.

The journey

Flying from Singapore to Busan meant that I’ll be doing two flights in each direction — that is: Singapore-Shanghai + Shanghai-Busan; and vice-versa. Coincidentally, I managed to score myself a different aircraft type for each leg, which made for some very interesting experiences.

Some quick stats for the flights:

  • Total flight time between Singapore (SIN) and Shanghai (PVG) was just under six hours in each direction; Shanghai (PVG) and Busan (PUS) clocked in at around 90 minutes per flight.

  • Aircraft types flown: Boeing 767-300 (SIN-PVG); Airbus A320 (PVG-PUS); Boeing 737-800 (PUS-PVG); Airbus A330-200 (PVG-SIN).

  • Out of the four flights, only one aircraft wore the China Eastern livery — with the other three branded in Shanghai Airlines paintwork.

  • One “in-flight meal” was served on each of the four flights, but I decided to skip the meal service on the first flight due to timing (I’ll elaborate more on this).

What went wrong?

It all had to do with the general service attitude by the staff of both China Eastern and Shanghai Airlines, which are seemingly working as one (and don’t feel it an issue to operate via co-branding — not that it seemed to make any difference).

My first exposure came upon boarding my Shanghai Airlines Boeing 767 flight to Shanghai-Pudong. While, admittedly, the somewhat-dated cabin interior didn’t kick things off to a great start, I was greeted by a yawning cabin attendant who would later be working in my section for the flight.

Granted that it was a past-midnight flight, and typical folks would look forward to catching a few winks of sleep. But it’s ridiculous to find working professionals, who’ve obviously been given their appropriate rest time prior to the flight, showing a lack of respect for their job, customers/passengers, and (more so) themselves.

(Later in the flight, the same cabin attendant was seen sleeping in her jump seat during the lights-out period. I may not be sure about Shanghai Airlines’ (or China Eastern’s) policy on cabin crew procedures. But I don’t believe sleeping on the job was permissible.)

Next up, overall demeanour. Almost every cabin attendant I saw showed a lack of interest in serving passengers. Their unwillingness can be seen in how they carry themselves throughout the flight via their actions and facial expressions. Also, the way in which they responded to questions, how they served food and drinks to passengers — I never ceased asking myself “why do they seem to hate their jobs so much?”

Speaking of poor interaction, the announcements made over the public announcement (PA) system throughout the flight were rather poorly done — especially those in English. With poor grammar and wordings aside, the pronunciations of these made by both flight attendants and tech crew (yes, including those in the cockpit responsible for flying the plane) were either indecipherable or simply came out as a heap of mumbo-jumbo. It got so bad that I gave up trying to work out what was being said…

And all this occurred on the first leg of my journey — which made me dread about just how things will be for my remaining flights. Not the best feeling to have when doing multi-segment flying with the same carrier.

On the ground at Shanghai-Pudong, the service quality and attitude by the China Eastern ground staff were no different.

Landing just before 6am, I came to the realisation that I needed to register at the transfer desk prior to returning to the departures area for my connecting flight, even though I had my onward boarding pass. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to clear security.

Problem: There were around 70 to 80 people waiting in the general queue to do the same thing. Processing time (upon further observation) was around 2 to 3 minutes per passenger, with only 2 ground staff servicing this group. “Ridiculous” was the only thing on my mind at that time.

Fortunately, there was a Sky Priority desk — meaning I wouldn’t have to stand in-line senselessly for the next hour-or-so (there was virtually no queue). Again, there was minimal interaction with the China Eastern staff (submit boarding pass and passport, details recorded and boarding pass stamped, collect boarding pass and passport).

(On my subsequent flights, and on the way back, the experience was pretty much similar — sans the yawning crew member.)

What they did right?

What struck me as interesting, but not surprising, was how the non-China Eastern staff involved in the various stages of the service provisions had managed to perform their roles significantly better than the actual airline responsible for my flights.

This included the SATS (Singapore Airport Terminal Services) ground staff responsible for the check-in and boarding processes, and the hosting of a shared airline lounge at Singapore Changi International Airport; and the Korean Air ground staff at Busan’s Gimhae International Airport, responsible for check-in, boarding and access to its own airline lounge (via SkyTeam alliance arrangements).

I was happy to have been served by such reliable and pleasantly-mannered members of staff at both Changi and Gimhae airports. With these being the first passenger service points for China Eastern outside of their home market, it creates a positive set of expectations to follow.

But in the case for China Eastern, with the harsh reality being a contrasting display of customer service routines, such a scenario actually does more harm than good. As explained, this airline has a very different level of appreciation where dealing with its customers is concerned.

Things to consider…

Poor customer service standards

China Eastern was my first patronage of a China-based airline (this does not include Cathay Pacific or Dragonair, which — in my books — are “Hong Kong based” airlines). Expectations, therefore, were set to appropriately-lower levels (based on what was previously shared with me by friends).

With that said, I was still rather appalled by just how the cabin and ground crew handled its customers/passengers. Generally speaking, they weren’t all rude — but, instead, lacked a natural want (whether it’s truly natural or orchestrated/trained-to-be) to serve.

“Customer service #101…”, anyone?

This seemingly-lacklustre nature of customer service has much to do with the local China-based (or, more specifically, Shanghainese) culture — and China Eastern, as an airline working on the world stage, and as a SkyTeam alliance member, should be more responsible and well-aware of this rather-important factor.

Service attitude

Out of the many China Eastern and Shanghai Airlines staff I encountered before and after my flights, most of them showed a lack of interest in their jobs through a collective display of somewhat-poor service attitude. Not only did it seem like a no-smiles policy was in force. But the grouchy look on their faces, it killed any chances for a more-positive atmosphere to transpire.

Is staff morale at the airline collective truly that bad? Or does it’s employees despise their jobs so much, to the point that it’s shown to passengers to prove a point?

Language skills

Mandarin may be the national spoken language. But for China Eastern, which also operates international routes, the cryptic-sounding English that virtually all its cabin attendants demonstrated was worrying. Especially more so for the chosen crew member who’s responsible for passenger announcements — they were always so badly spoken out!

On one particular flight, I had no idea what the first officer was blabbering about in his attempt at an English announcement (although I did find out towards the end of his slurred speech that it was concerning our flight conditions).

When compounded with the aforementioned issues, it creates awful service encounters that rather be left unspoken of.

Service routines

I take issue with some of the service routines set out by China Eastern.

For example, there was always a lack of clarity when it came to boarding at the gate. Those elderly passengers or parents with children did get to board first on two out of four of my flights. Pre-boarding for SkyTeam Sky Priority members were either forgotten about (Busan and Shanghai) or wasn’t recognised at all (Singapore). Crowd control, in general, was poor due also to the inconsistent boarding practices at the different airports.

During flight, the flight attendants would always follow the same sequence of cabin service irrespective of the current time and the duration of the flight. It roughly goes like this (upon reaching cruising flight level): serve meals throughout cabin; serve drinks; collect all meal boxes/trays; and cabin service ends. While they do give people sufficient time to finish their meals and drinks, the crew will always attempt to complete the service in the shortest time possible.

(On my first China Eastern flight, which left Singapore just after 0100 (1am) local time, the serving of the meal came one hour into the flight, being 0200 (2am). Given the time, most people were more interested in catching a few winks over sustenance — and a quick “before-landing” meal would probably have made more sense…)

To top it off, the fasten-seat-belt signs were never turned off — which begs the question: “Why have them as lit-up signs in the first place?”

I don’t suppose the airline has considered making their service procedures more flexible and sensical at the same time…?

Aging aircraft cabins and sub-standard lounges

Just like the airlines’ customer service efforts, the presentation of their aircraft cabins, specifically with their older fleet of aircraft, leaves a lot to be desired.

While it’s highly unlikely that China Eastern will be retrofitting their older aircraft, going for their newer aircraft types (for example, the Airbus A320 and A330) would be a surer bet where overall in-flight visual and creature comforts are concerned.

Similarly, the airline lounge at their home base in Shanghai-Pudong wasn’t anything to celebrate about either.

While I appreciated the quiet space away from the general populous of the departure terminal, it didn’t exactly measure up in terms of the quality of facilities offered.

There were big (worn) lounge chairs with shared side tables in between. A limited selection of food items were on offer (hot and cold), fruits, and drinks including juices, water, and tea and coffee (there was a self-service machine that could make cappuccinos and espressos).

Betters those lounges operated by the American-based airlines, though…

The attending receptionist at the “First Class Lounge” made flight boarding announcements the old-fashioned way: by going around the lounge and literally broadcasting it at the top of her voice. It was an eye-opener, and also the only time where I understood every single word of English that was said.

Would I fly China Eastern again?

I probably wouldn’t hesitate taking another China Eastern flight, on the conditions that the total fare wasn’t as high as its competitors with a better hard (aircraft and facilities) and soft (overall customer service) product. If I didn’t have my SkyTeam Sky Priority status, the experience would’ve probably been quite underwhelming given the poorer customer service attitude exercised throughout my flights.

Their overall undesirable nature to serve really bugged me. By comparison, even low-cost carriers, like AirAsia or Tigerair, could provide a far-more endearing passenger experience between the airline and its passengers.

If the customers were of the local demographic (that is, the Chinese from China), this particular concern of mine probably mattered little. But in a global sense, it’s a major fail — and one that needs careful attention by the airline to bring itself to a new level of competitiveness.

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