Three ways for airlines to create a lasting first impression

MH cabin crew member.Image via Wikipedia

In service businesses like airlines, first impressions count. On my hour-long American Airlines flight last evening from Toronto to Boston, I was welcomed on-board by a cheerful flight attendant, Heather. She was genuinely pleasant (and not over-doing it) and extremely courteous, even though she was the only flight attendant on board the small Embraer jet. She played along when people were not paying close attention to the safety demonstration, and cracked jokes while serving beverages. A very pleasant experience – but that’s just one tenth of the job done for the airline when it comes to creating first impressions.

Creating lasting first impressions – a hundred million times

Air Canada’s Robert Milton mentions in his book that on average each passenger comes in contact with the airline ten times, every time he flies. This may be through the call center, website, at the check-in counter and of course, on-board the plane. So if an airline flies 10 million passengers per year, there would be a total of 100 million interactions on average! So how can airlines create a lasting first impression, every customer interaction? Here are three ways.

  1. Exceed expectations. Before a customer interacts with an airline, he has certain expectations formed through advertisements, word-of-mouth or previous experiences. Airlines should aim to exceed them. Reduce the waiting time at the call center. Have pleasant check-in counter staff. Cater to the fliers’ needs on-board. This is not to say that each and every airline must spend millions in sprucing up service levels, but rather exceed the expectations they have set themselves. For example, budget airlines like AirAsia promise on-time performance and not in-flight luxuries. They then ensure these metrics are adhered to. Airlines like Thai Airways and Qatar Airways promise a pampered service for their business class passengers, and then deliver it. Prioritize, then execute and keep the word.
  2. Stay consistent. Every time a customer interacts with an element of the airline, from the website to the stewardess, he registers the moment as a future reference point. There is no substitute for a consistently good experience across multiple interaction points. An airline cannot afford to let the customer wait for 35 mins before speaking to a call center officer, or have unfriendly staff in a frequent flier lounge operated by a partner airline while having extremely courteous flight attendants. It is not just the on-board service that a customer cares about. An unusable website can chase away customers just as much as a dirty plane. Hence, consistency is key to creating a lasting impression.
  3. Be different. A pleasant surprise almost always makes for a great first impression. Virgin America’s  famous safety video surprised even the most seasoned traveler with their off-beat safety instructions.’s advertisements never show any planes, but rather everyday travelers and common South African folks stuck in a funny situation. Their advertisements often contain more slapstick humor than a stand up comedy show. Again, creating a very different first impression than a screen full of smiling stewardesses and jumbo jets.

At the end of the day, an airline must maximize every interaction it has with the consumers. The easiest way to do that is to create a lasting first impression.

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco. Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others. Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
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