The services industry mantra that the customer is king seems sometimes to have escaped the notice of the world's airlines. Their customers routinely endure lengthy queuing and occasionally find either themselves or their baggage bumped off an overbooked flight. By and large, they endure this with fortitude and good grace. It takes particularly arrogant and inept service to get passengers truly angry. Astonishingly, Jetstar, the low-cost Qantas subsidiary, has managed that in the space of a couple of weeks.
The launch day of its domestic operations was marred by a ground equipment glitch in Wellington that led to delays snowballing beyond two hours. A week later, it gave just nine days' notice of changes to its schedule that ranged up to five hours. If first impressions are the key for a new enterprise, these were significant setbacks. Yet even they paled beside the treatment of a group of Auckland rugby fans who were not allowed on a Jetstar flight to Wellington last Saturday. According to the airline, they had not met a strict check-in deadline, which sees the boarding gate closed 30 minutes before departure.
The problem may be not so much the policy as its unbending enforcement. This seems particularly inappropriate because it is fair to assume that Jetstar, by dint of its budget operation, does not employ as many check-in staff as other airlines.
Equally, many of its people will be new to the job. Yet, rather than acknowledge teething troubles, Jetstar spoke of the need for an educational campaign to show how it differed from other carriers. That merely added fuel to the fire.
If Jetstar is different, it is largely because of its cost base, which it says is up to 40 per cent lower than full-service carriers. It operates only three Airbus aircraft on its Auckland-Wellington-Christchurch-Queenstown services. That means added pressure to get flights off the ground on time and turn them around.
A miscalculation of the tightness of its schedule led to the early change in flight times. Now, that same pressure has prompted a rigidity at the check-in desk and the most appalling publicity.
Jetstar started flying Australian domestic routes in 2005 and has been a stellar performer. It found a readymade market for its no-frills approach, given that 75 per cent of passengers are said to be driven by fares. There is nothing to suggest New Zealanders' appetite differs, but, in all but name, they have been serviced by a low-cost carrier since 2002 when Air New Zealand dispensed with meals and business class on domestic flights. Travellers were compensated with cheaper ticket prices. The strategy, fortified by higher-yielding business traffic, has been a success. Two years ago, Pacific Blue arrived, imbued with the same idea that low operating costs would more than offset reduced revenue from cheaper fares.
The message for Jetstar is that New Zealanders are already familiar with budget travel. But while they know they will not have spacious seats or eat lavishly, they are accustomed to a reasonable standard of service. Competition has delivered the sort of deals that mean slightly cheaper fares will not, by themselves, compensate for arrogant or offhand behaviour. Jetstar says it has invested $250 million here. More of that should, obviously, have been spent on assessing the nuances of the market. If so, it would not now be having to offer compensation vouchers and employ extra customer service trainers from Australia.
Already, however, people are saying they will not use Jetstar again. In an intensely competitive and probably overcrowded market, where other airlines will seize on any mistake, that is a dire message. If Jetstar's blunders continue, it will learn that even in the airline world, the customer is, indeed, king.