Sky Wars, the battle for premium customer loyalty in the air.

For a while now, any long haul travel adventures of mine, always happen alongside delivering keynote speeches, somewhere around the world. For example, a gig in South Africa would mean I would have my flights booked some time apart, so I could spend a week in work mode, then 6 or so travelling to exotic and less well known new places like Malawi and Mozambique.

The other huge benefit is that this means long haul trips come with ‘free’ business class fights, as part of my rider. (I know, lucky bitch.. sometimes, I have to pinch myself). These work perks have given me some wonderful customer experiences, and for my first CX focussed blog post, I’m going to talk about airlines. Reflecting on past travel experiences at the front of the plane, and in my next post will share my experiences of taking the economy route whilst experimenting with digital-nomadism.

For most mere mortals, we only get to walk past first and business and get teased by the prospect of comfort, on the way to our own seats in cattle class. And before my speaking career thats as much as I’d experienced.

Ok, I’m about to make a bold statement… bare in mind this is coming from someone who is literally the most difficult customer to please on the planet… I have to say it… I literally LOVE….. Etihad. Flying with them in First and Business Class can only described as feeling like you’re in a your own little gold trimmed hotel room, in the sky!. One that’s celebrated with a real glass of champagne on arrival. Complimented with room service on demand, with attentive hosts at your beck and call who are singularly focussed on serving you, with all forms of fresh Fine dining, served up on china plates, accompanied by silverware, and presented on your own little white restaurant quality table cloth.

From your ‘room’ you can order a nice glass of Red from the curated wine selection, to help get set up to work at your wifi connected desk. Or when you need a rest from work, flick on your wide screen TV to access the latest entertainment. And when it all gets too much, call housekeeping and pop to the bar whilst they turn down your bed, which upon your return is fully flat, fluffed up, and finished off with silky high thread count cotton sheets. Arriving refreshed and ready for business, especially if you stop at one of their main lounges to enjoy a hot shower, and as I have sometimes, a massage! You can even be chauffeured from home to your flight and onwards to your meeting by the airlines partners. I’m reliably informed that innovation in the First and Business class product is the biggest competitive challenge in the market- after all, thats where most of the profit is generated. And with Singapore and Etihad launching their range of suites on their new A380 fleets, it’s got the competition twitching.

The interesting thing about the Emirati airlines is that they have the luxurious position of being owned by members of El-Maktoum family and/or are run by the government. Many in the industry use this as an excuse as to why they are so much better than other providers, and are often seen as immune from the process and cost pressures that have all but broken the experience of the likes of BA.

I’ve flown business with BA too, and following my experiences with Etihad have found them them rather underwhelming. The cuts they’ve made to save money are very obvious and as a result, the experience disappointing. This extends to the cabin design where you have to climb over your fellow passenger if they are in ‘flat bed’ position in order to get to the loo. Gone are the pretzels, welcome champagne is served in a plastic flute and  I don’t know what happened to ‘To Fly, To Serve” as a service culture mantra. It certainly wasn’t living and breathing with their staff on my flights, where I felt like an inconvenience when I asked for something off plan.

One would think that the likes of Etihad would be significantly more expensive, but you would be wrong! Prices are still very competitive but you get so much more for your money. However, their routes may be less convenient, particularly if flying Atlantic where Virgin and BA/Star Alliance have the advantage and monopoly. Flying to LA would mean heading to Dubai or Abu Dhabi first, but I have been known to make this decision and have a stop off enroute somewhere to ensure I get the same experience. Even in economy, their product and service is air miles ahead of the competition. If heading East, my best piece of advice to you is to choose Emirates, and fly in the day (sleeping in an upright seat is never going to be fun). You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the price and you’ll get there in comfort with great value.

But its not all about luxury. My absolute fave CX is the one on offer from the relatively small operator, Air NewZealand. Everything they do is designed around customer needs. From digital first booking, check-in and account management, self service luggage label printing and the best bag drop proposition I’ve ever seen, to being able to pre-order your lounge coffee on their app, their funky high budget safety videos staring the likes of Cuba Gooding-Junior, ample comfortable pitches in economy, engaged employees, amazing NZ wines (including one of the best Pinot Noir’s I’ve tasted) and their accompanying local cheeses give you the the best of all worlds without the Fist/Business price tag. Seamless experience end to end, with frills and efficiency balanced perfectly, in all the right places.  

I believe they personify the art of the possible, knowing what customers want, investing in the things that matter most and are noticed, and saving costs in ways (using digital and self service) that make it easier and more enjoyable for customers. In comparison, you can see why the others are losing the ‘sky wars’ for customer loyalty by just cutting costs!

Anyway, the trip I’m on just now to see if I can make my business CMXperience work as a Digital nomad. It isn’t being funded by a keynote. I am travelling on a budget. I haven’t ever planned or been on a shoestring back packing trip, but a personal goal is my determination to experience something different this time around. Use public transport where available, stay in hostels and taking no frills flights long haul. Sounds painful, right?

In my next departure (post) I will share my experience! 

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