Comfort Check: Airlines Fly By The Seat of Their Pants

The Wall Street Journal: “The seat bottom is one of the most crucial elements in seat comfort, and one of the most carefully studied. Longer is better: You get more support under your thighs. But some airlines scrimp. Some reduce seat length to save weight … Another airline choice that affects your comfort: how high the seat is off the floor. About 18 inches is standard, but some European airlines with generally tall clientele want seats constructed higher, so long legs rest more naturally. Some Asian airlines order seats at 17 inches cushion height.”

“Seat makers say many factors influence seat comfort far beyond their control. The length of the flight affects how comfortable passengers think a seat is. So do cabin temperature and lighting. The temperament of passengers when they get on the plane also affects comfort assessments—if you’re frazzled from the hassles and frustrated by TSA, you’re more likely to think the seat is uncomfortable. Friendliness of flight attendants can help or hurt seat-comfort surveys, too.”

“The cleanliness of the airplane is a big factor in seating comfort scores. In addition, studies show more attractive color combinations score higher … Airlines get all kinds of options on aircraft seats. Foot and calf rests are options rarely used by U.S. airlines but more common overseas. A one-piece food tray is more robust than a bi-fold. Coach seats can have reading lights, USB ports, 13.3-inch monitors, dual water bottle holders and under-seat boxes for entertainment gear so there’s no box on the floor blocking under-seat storage and foot space. Many airlines, of course, choose not to provide those conveniences.”

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United Breaks Privacy with Passenger App

The Wall Street Journal: “United rolled out a new app to its flight attendants earlier this year with so much information about people, the airline has been reluctant to turn on all the functionality. The tool can show flight attendants information on each frequent flier’s five previous flights—green if it was a good flight, yellow or red if something went wrong, like a delay. But United is worried some customers might consider that stalking … Personal milestones like birthdays are left to the judgment of flight attendants. They can decide whether they think a customer would appreciate the recognition or recoil.”

“The devices can give flight attendants real-time information on tight flight connections for passengers, confirm whether a wheelchair has been ordered for a customer and help keep track of unaccompanied minors. Many now allow flight attendants to offer instant compensation for maladies like spilled coffee or broken entertainment screens. Better service onboard in coach will go to those with higher status.”

“Airlines acknowledge the devices have made the job more complex for flight attendants. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, says the devices can reduce situational awareness. If flight attendants have to study the screen to correctly recognize each customer, they may not be spending as much time staying alert to what’s going on in the cabin.” She comments: “I’m a little shocked there hasn’t been more backlash. I think the public has generally decided they like the personalized service, they like to be able to resolve their issues faster, not have to tell people as much. And they’ve sort of sacrificed their privacy for those conveniences.”

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The Truck Surf Hotel: Waves on Wheels

Fast Company: “The Truck Surf Hotel is exactly what it sounds like: a hotel. For surfers. On a specially designed, expandable truck … When it’s not in motion, the vehicle uses hydraulics to extend its interiors beyond the truck bed with moving walls, increasing the available interior space … every individual or couple–up to a maximum of 10 people–has their own private double room with a key card, a comfortable bed, air conditioning, and wireless internet.”

“On the truck’s first floor there’s a common area where the owners serve a breakfast buffet every morning. The rooms are on the top floor and each of them has wide glass windows that give each room plenty of natural light and views. The toilet and the shower are common for all guests. The two-floor hotel on wheels travels to the best surfing spots in Portugal and Morocco. “

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Hotel Shampoo: Losing its Lather?

The Wall Street Journal: “Those little bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash in hotels—icons of travel—are disappearing, replaced by bulk dispensers mounted on shower walls. And some travelers are in a lather … some road warriors say wall-mounted racks look low-class. They’re steamed that removing their prized individual bottles looks like just another in a long string of amenity cuts from hotels, like mouthwash, stationery, sewing kits and pens.” David Lennox, a frequent traveler, comments: “What’s next, getting rid of the packs of coffee and making us scoop out of a can? I think it’s cheap, incredibly cheap.”

“Marriott says its change allows it to offer higher-quality bath products at lower cost and reduce waste … And the landfill waste can be significant, says Liam Brown, who is responsible for Marriott brands like Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn and Springhill Suites in the Americas. Little bottles are never refilled and rarely recycled. The initial 450 properties where Marriott will make the change use 10.3 million little bottles a year, or 113,000 pounds of plastic, he says. When the change reaches 1,500 hotels it means 34.5 million bottles, or 375,000 pounds of plastic a year.”

“Noelle Nicolai, who leads marketing for Wyndham Hotel Group’s upscale brands, likens bath products to bread at restaurants. If it’s mediocre, you forget it. ‘If done right, it can be one of the top drivers of delight and guest satisfaction,’ she says.
Wyndham did extensive research and decided to increase the size of some of its bottles from 30 milliliters to 50 milliliters to encourage guests to take them home. ‘Maintaining that bottle experience…was really important to us,’ Ms. Nicolai says. Wyndham and most other large hotel companies send leftover soap that’s been sanitized and repackaged to a charity called Clean the World for recycling.”

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Airport Lounges: From Perk to Pathetic?

The Wall Street Journal: “Airport lounges were once a perk for business travelers and high spenders, a haven from the chaos of modern travel. Then more rewards credit cards started offering lounge access. And what was once an oasis now is more like a mall food court. Losing that ‘1%’ feeling has been jarring. Grousers say gourmet meals once on offer are now finger foods, and beverages are more likely to be guzzled than sipped. Overcrowding means seats often aren’t available.”

“Travelers say a turning point came in 2016 when JPMorgan Chase & Co. launched its Sapphire Reserve credit card. It became a huge hit, offering big rewards to offset a $450 annual fee. One of those was a Priority Pass membership that provides entry for the cardholder to around 60 lounges at U.S. airports and around 1,200 world-wide—with as many guests as desired.”

“Lounges are trying to rein things in. Following complaints from cardholders, AmEx is expanding some of its Centurion lounges and restricting access to holders of Platinum and Centurion cards, which carry annual fees of $550 and $2,500, respectively, and some business cardholders. Priority Pass, meanwhile, is dealing with the crowds in a new way. It’s offering food and booze credits of around $28 per person, with one catch: People have to leave the lounge to use them at restaurants in the airport.”

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The Color of Money: Bias & The Brand Experience

Alexandra C. Feldberg and Tami Kim: “Over the past two years, we have investigated discrimination in customer service by conducting large-scale field experiments in the hospitality industry. We have repeatedly found that front-line workers exhibit racial bias in the quality of customer service they provide. In one experiment, we emailed approximately 6,000 hotels across the United States from 12 fictitious email accounts. We varied the names of the senders to signal different attributes, such as race and gender, to the recipients.”

“Overall, hotel employees were significantly more likely to respond to inquiries from people who had typically white names than from those who had typically black and Asian names … Hotel employees provided 20 percent more restaurant recommendations to white than to black or Asian people. Employees’ politeness also varied by race. When responding to white people, employees were more likely to address them by name and to end their emails with a complimentary close (e.g., “Best,” “Sincerely”) than they were when responding to black or Asian people.”

“Instead of relying primarily on trainings to remedy bias, if they truly want to transform the way they serve customers, companies need to make structural changes. For instance, they should standardize scripts and provide employees with specific protocols for managing these situations. Such efforts can institutionalize norms of behavior for employees when they interact with customers … To detect bias in these behaviors requires quantifying different aspects of customer service and comparing treatment quality across a range of customers … It is only after identifying these disparities that companies can develop targeted interventions to combat biases.”

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Ocean Medallion: Smooth Cruising on a ‘Smart’ Ship

Quartz: John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer of Carnival Cruises, “previously worked for Disney, where he was instrumental in the creation of the MagicBand, a wristband meant to help reduce the aggravations of the typical Disney vacation … At Carnival, Padgett and his team quickly set out to create Carnival’s own version of the Disney MagicBand, called the Ocean Medallion. It uses AI to take the MagicBand technology to another level. Instead of just alleviating the ‘friction’ of typical travel experiences (lines, room keys, paying for things) it will use data to anticipate what you want to do, eat, and see.”

“The Medallion, offered first on Carnival’s Princess cruise line, is about the size of a quarter … It facilitates boarding and cuts down on wait times. It can be used to pay for things on the cruise, it unlocks the door to your room as you approach, and can be used on the ship-wide gambling platform. Carrying the Medallion means the staff knows your name and where you are. If you order a drink, they can come find you to deliver it. If you go to another bar on board, the staff already knows what you like. The Medallion also updates your information, keeping track of your likes and dislikes, what activities you enjoy, and what you consume. It anticipates other activities you’ll enjoy and the side trips you’ll want to take.”

“In many ways the Medallion is a beta launch of the first fully wired smart city. What it takes to make it work could one day be used on land. Padgett says the technology is innovative because the preferences you reveal are updated in real time. You order a Martini and every crew member on the ship instantly knows more information about you, and is that much closer to determining whether you might enjoy trying scuba diving—or just kicking back in your stateroom with an old episode of The Love Boat.”

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Take a Chance or Fly Air France

The New York Times: “You open what looks like an in-flight care package to find 50 feet of Sudoku puzzles on a tapelike roll, Champagne-flavored gummy candies and a scratch-and-sniff patch that smells like boeuf bourguignon. In a time of low-cost airlines, where your ticket might not include an edible hot meal or free access to electronic entertainment, the box reminds you of what could be if you shell out a little more on Air France. That’s the idea behind the airline’s new ‘Take a Chance or Fly Air France’ campaign, which will begin showing up in American digital ad space this week.”

Dominique Wood, Air France’s executive vice president of brand and communication, comments: “We want to remind our clients and our future clients that there is another way to travel, even in economy, where everything is included. You’ve got a very comfortable seat, you’ve got a hot meal and a full complement of entertainment, and if you can have it — if you’re the right age — a glass of French Champagne.”

“The Air France campaign will mostly be a digital one, but visitors to the Grove mall in Los Angeles on Saturday can win pairs of round-trip economy tickets. The Sudoku puzzle tape, gummies and scratch-and-sniff patches will also be given away, and will be available in an online sweepstakes.” Henry Harteveldt, the founder of Atmosphere Research Group, comments: “As airlines have unbundled their product, they almost don’t want to remind you of what it’s like to fly them. What Air France is doing is a smart marketing move, but it’s also a brave marketing move.”

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The Grand Hotel in Kosovo: World’s Worst?

The New York Times: “The Grand Hotel in the Kosovar capital of Pristina is regularly reviled in internet reviews. Here’s a sample: ‘disgusting,’ ‘a ruin’ and ‘an absolute horror. Probably the worst I have ever been at.’ But the managers seem unfazed by the online abuse. They do not take web bookings and barely offer access to the internet; their hotel has no email account … even Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, usually an eager booster of everything his country has to offer, struggles to find anything nice to say about it … ‘I don’t think it is the worst hotel in the world, but that is because the world is very big,’ the president said.”

“With 13 stories and three adjoining concrete blocks in a prime location, the hotel accommodates flocks of pigeons on the upper floors and has rented out its basement, once used as a prison by Serbian paramilitary thugs, to a health club. But it is otherwise deserted, a maze of dimly lit corridors that are littered with pigeon feathers, strung with cobwebs, lined with doors of dark wood and haunted by even darker memories of Kosovo’s past. Two floors have been reduced to rubble, the remnants of a remodeling program that ran out of money.”

Service is minimal to nonexistent, the marble lobby stinks of cigarette smoke and the green carpeting that covers most of the floors is stained and scarred. And then there are the cockroaches … The president, who has only bad memories of the hotel in the past and despairs at its current condition, harbors big plans for its future. ‘Perhaps we could build a Trump Tower there,’ Mr. Thaci suggested.”

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Airplane Economics: Nickels & Dimes

The Wall Street Journal: “Profit per passenger at the seven largest U.S. airlines averaged $19.65 over the past four years—record-setting profitable years for airlines. In 2017, it stood at $17.75, based on airline earnings reports. In truth, airlines now cover their costs with tickets and get their profits from baggage fees, seat fees, reservation-change fees and just about all the other nickel-and-diming that aggravates customers. You might also call those extra 12 to 15 passengers now crammed onto each flight ‘Andrew Jackson’ for the profit they bring.”

“Given the $20-per-passenger haul ($40 round-trip), it’s easy to see why airlines are so intent on cramming in more seats, even when they know travelers hate the lack of space and complain bitterly about shrunken bathrooms, slim seat padding and skinny rows … Low-fare passengers shoehorned into the back of the plane may not even be covering what it costs to transport them. But they scored a low fare because the airline was concerned it might not fill all the seats on a particular flight, and some fare is better than no fare.”

“Among the big U.S. airlines, Southwest had the largest net profit margin last year, at 16.5%. Southwest continues to defy conventional airline wisdom. It doesn’t charge baggage fees; instead, it believes it attracts more passengers to each flight because many want to avoid the baggage fees charged by competitors.”

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