How Long is TOO Long?

By Ron Rosenberg

Travel used to be fun, with reasonable meals, empty seats, and comfortable gate areas. But lately, the fun seems to have vanished almost completely during most trips.

In the early days, the ticket agents, gate agents, and flight crews would go out of their way to make the entire experience a memorable one. It wasn’t uncommon on some trips for flight attendants to sing the safety announcements to the tune of the “Flintstones” cartoon theme and offer unique "flight-attendant special" drinks during the cabin service.

This light atmosphere was what made air travel at least tolerable. But an experience on one airline, in particular, prompted me to avoid it whenever possible. This lesson is an important one you should use to carefully evaluate your own service standards.

I should start out by saying that I rarely travel with checked luggage. When I started flying for business over 30 years ago, a colleague of mine explained that there were two kinds of luggage: carry on...and lost.

And although I’ve very rarely had problems with my checked bags, and never actually lost one permanently, it’s more the time it takes to check a bag and then wait for it at the other end that’s the real concern.

But on this particular flight, I did have a box to check, and this was my bad luck because the line to get to the ticket counter just to check a bag was long. Very long. And a quick glance out to the curb told me that the skycaps were just as busy.

So I resigned myself to waiting on line. Of course, I had some audio interviews from my coaching group on my phone so it wasn’t a total loss.

I finally got to the ticket counter to check the bag – 20 minutes later. Actually, it was 23 minutes, but who’s counting! I asked the agent why the lines were so long. She said it was because they were short staffed, and were trying to hire more people. This didn’t sound right, so I said, “I thought there was a long waiting list of people who wanted to work for the airlines.”

The agent at the next station chimed in, “True, but we have to get them trained first.” Again, this didn’t sound quite right, so I asked who was in charge, and was pointed in the direction of a supervisor named Mike.

When I asked Mike about the situation, he had another answer altogether. He explained that his boss thought they were actually overstaffed and that the length of the line and the time it took were acceptable. I was a bit surprised at this.

So I thanked him and asked for the name and number of the person who sets these “acceptable” standards.

Mike disappeared in the back for a few minutes, I assumed to look up the information. He returned with another person who identified himself as the assistant station manager and said he could answer my questions about the line and staffing.

I started by explaining the two completely different answers I had received from his staff and asked about the line. He explained that they had determined that ten to 20 minutes was an acceptable length of time to wait. Sometimes it was shorter, sometimes a bit longer.

And he went on to explain that they had complex modeling systems in place to fine tune the staffing levels so that they hit the 20-minute target almost 95% of the time.

But here’s the problem: I just don’t think a 20-minute wait is acceptable. He explained that if I wanted a ten-minute time, then they would have to double the number of people working the counter, and that would raise fares, and I wouldn’t want that either, would I?

Actually, I probably wouldn’t mind the minimal increase caused by adding a few people during well-known peak hours.

The point is that you can have the most detailed, comprehensive systems in place to monitor and manage your internal operations, but none of that counts if your goals are not in line with your customers’ expectations.

For example, there’s no point in perfecting systems to deliver a blue car when your customers really want red. All you really get then are a lot of cars that no one wants to buy.

So not only has this airline taken all the fun out of the actual flight experience, they’ve now made it a chore to even get on the plane.

Try not to make these same mistakes in your own business or organization.