World renowned Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr. Harold Olusegun Demuren, in the wake of all the bashings received by Nigerian airlines over their attitudes to customers, has tasked all to be at their prime if the airlines would want to compete.
Of recent there have been series of fisticuff exchanges at the domestic terminals both the Murtala Muhammed Airport Terminal 2 (MMA2) and the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) over unexplained arbitrary flight cancellations and delays that run into five hours without compensation without the airline treating the passengers with courtesy.
A fortnight ago, there was bedlam at the departure hall of the Murtala Muhammed Airport Terminal 2 as Air Nigeria passengers entered a free for all fight with staff of the company after it cancelled all its flights to various destinations of the country.
The airline, according to most passengers, had cancelled its 10.45am flight from Lagos to Port Harcourt, 10: 45am from Lagos to Abuja, 1:00pm from Lagos to Enugu and 1:00pm from Lagos to Abuja, without any forewarning, explanation or apology to their passengers.
This has been the sort of scenario in the domestic scene for months now and crisis apart, the Consumer Protection Unit of the NCAA, has done little to call the airlines to order for the breach which is a story for another day.
Statistics show that between January and December 2010, there were over 46,998,000 complaints from passengers against airlines of which much was not concretely done to convince the passengers they are king and that is just for last year alone as this year’s figures have not been compiled.
With these compliant figures, is it any surprise that the passengers when embarking on international trips where Nigerian airlines currently fly especially, London, United States, South Africa prefer to use the renowned legacy carriers on those routes thus leaving the Nigerian airlines half empty.
It is against this backdrop that the NCAA helmsman addressed a forum on customer service organised by one of the said domestic airlines Arik Air and although he commended the organisation of such he was quick to make the airline and all others understand why they are losing to foreign carriers because of terrible customer service.
According to him, the whole business of the industry is about providing safe, secure, convenient and comfortable air transportation to the several millions who look to and depend on it for their travels whether it is business, pleasure or educational.
He also said that ultimately, the reason for all the safety, security and technically sound equipment, training and practices are to serve the passengers. And that the nation’s carriers especially Arik Air can compete with the best standards anywhere in the world with respect to equipment, resources, maintenance, technical capability and facilities.
However, he explained that the singularly most important factor in rating airlines is not just their record of safety and technical capabilities but by far the reaction of their passengers and their flying experience.
Demuren said,” Gone are the days when the passenger was an inconvenience to be tolerated. The stiff competition in the industry today and the far more sophisticated air travellers of this age have changed that forever. The dominant or prevailing model is to focus on customer satisfaction to not only remain in business but to remain ahead of others. “
“This continuing development has seen worldwide airlines dedicating and increasingly larger resource, time and people to providing services and incentives that are customer centred. We now see professional engagement in developing in-flight menus, in-flight entertainment, seat arrangements and positions, amenities and even crew uniforms. Outside the aircraft, the passenger experience has been enhanced right from reservations to airport arrivals including premium services such as chauffeur driven privileges, dedicated check-ins, red carpet treatment, versatile departure and arrival lounges and competitive and constantly frequent flier and other patronage programs. “
“Most of all, even the pricing war between competitors is with the objective of attracting and keeping the best and most customers. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the face of our industry today. The good news is that only the best will survive and it will primarily be because of how they treat people not because their fleet is made up of Boeing or Airbus. My friends, this is the industry Arik is in and the one Arik must work to stay ahead in.”
He also questioned certain happenings in the industry currently, stating that after the spate of fatal accidents of 2005, the flying public lost confidence amongst other things, accusing airlines of flying very old aircraft “coffin”. “Then how come after the NCAA domesticated Cape Town Convention, and Arik started bringing in new aircraft, why are they not full always?”
“With this advantage (of newer aircraft) and the most versatile and technologically advanced equipment which have already been manufactured and custom retrofitted for the best in-flight experience, why then would Arik not be by the far, the primary airline of choice?”
With the largest fleet and most routes in Nigeria, he asked, why would an airline like Arik not be the dominant carrier by a vast margin? Why would Arik ever be a second choice or alternative failing availability of another?
“There is only one answer to these questions and it is the same for all…customer service. “
To answer the question further, he also put out a series of questions that need to be asked first: like:
“What is Arik’s overall customer approach as it stands today? From online booking, how convenient and user friendly is the Arik site and process? How sufficiently informative and how current, valid and dependable the information that is posted or made available whether it relates to routes, promotions, departure and arrival times? What kind of experience are travellers subjected to at reservation and or inquiry stages? Are contact telephone numbers indeed functional? “
He went on further,” Are calls answered promptly and by courteous customer service agents? Do they demonstrate passion and proactively and swiftly provide remedies to customer issues? Are they polite and compassionate? Even when the customer is wrong, do they empathize with the circumstances of the customer? Are they ever ready to shift the blame or pass the buck back to the customer or others? Or do they understand enough to recognize that what the customer needs most at that time is a solution? “
“What about the airport experience? How are they received and treated by counter employees? Is it courteous, helpful and cheerful? Are lines too long and are employees polite? Do counter employees have sufficient training and information to handle all issues and questions? Has Arik invested enough in ensuring that customer waiting areas are comfortable and befitting? “
“What about convenience? What is Arik’s record for flight delays? What about cancellations? What about baggage delays and or losses? Is Arik sufficiently dependable as far as departure record? Can a businessman bank on flying Arik and making his meeting? Can a student bank on flying Arik and arriving in school on schedule? What about the social traveller? Can he or she fly Arik and arrive in time for that all important social engagement or is he or she likely to be the missing groom or bride at his or her own wedding? “
“With baggage, will those tuxedos or wedding dress arrive on time? Or will they blame a bad ceremony on Arik, not the rain?
Demuren admitted the hectic peculiarities of the operating environment as they are not few. We understand we share our airspace with our VIPs and security sometimes necessitates airspace closures that result in delays, as well as that its contract and supply system with fuel marketers is still evolving and remains imperfect resulting in delays.
“We recognize that the current existing design and realities of our airports and fuel dumps particularly in traffic ridden Lagos continues to present challenges that could result in delays. . We recognize that new levels of airport security and screening limits access options that were not contemplated at the time of designing our airports. “
“We recognize that ground handling, baggage collection and distribution on the conveyor system are matters beyond the control of Arik as is aircraft dispatch sometimes. We recognize that airlines continue to battle the menace of bird strikes and the attendant costs and losses.”
However, he queried, with these understandings: How effective a job of politely and considerately communicating this to customers has Arik done? Has Arik succeeded in securing their sympathy and understanding or in ignoring and aggravating them?”
After accounting for its environmental peculiarities, the DG said that there are other accepted delays such as weather, air return which were safety precautionary measures but asked if these circumstances beyond operator control are announced to the passengers asking if their sufficient, timely and courteous communication demonstrates remorse and consideration for passenger plights.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the crux of the matter! This is the difference between full load and empty planes even when the aircraft are the best. This is the difference between committed repeat customers and one time regrets. This is the difference between bankable load projections and haphazard coincidental load calculations. This is the difference between profit and loss. It is the difference between sustainability and unfortunate eventuality”, he advised.