Airline lessons learned from the million mile high club

Written by : Tim Vasko | Published on April 12, 2011
Category: Blog

Editor's Note: This blog post is an edited version of a blog post Tim put up in 2006. Unfortunately not much has changed since then in the airline industry.

I was recently sent a link to this video - a humorous take on the folly of discount airlines: Cheap Flights

Most people would agree that it hits a nerve, but for me, it's more like hitting the entire spinal column.. I know this pain. Personally.

Yes, I'm afraid it's true. I'm in the Million Mile High Club: I've accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to take a family of six around the world at least seventeen times. People like me are known as "Road Warriors" we are the people who pay homage to the airport bars on Friday afternoons with circles under our eyes, glasses of beer in front of us, cranking out messages on our smartphones while muttering into our Bluetooth headsets.

While traveling, I've had time to collect some of my thoughts about airline travel. Most of them start with "@$#&!!"

However, the ones that can be printed online represent the very distillation of my wisdom. If you're an airline who wants serve your customers and make money, heed my words. I've flown with them all.

Here are the 7 cardinal "what-not-to-do" lessons from an extremely frequent flyer. Want people to love your airline? Recommend you to their friends? Want to travel with you? Then please don't follow these rules:


Make your customers life as difficult as possible. Try hiring a special force of employees (or Gestapo) to harass your passengers at every possible point in their journey.

This is an actual encounter with the Air Canada Carryon Bag Gestapo while I was standing in line at security 40 minutes before my flight was to leave for home:

Gestapo: "Excuse me. I see you must do this a thousand times, but I don't believe your bag will fit on the plane." Me: "Chuckle. Yes. I have done it at least 10,000 times, and this is the latest TUMI bag ($450), guaranteed to fit, it fits just fine thanks." Gestapo: "Sir, I'm hired by Air Canada to reduce the number of carryon bags, Air Canada doesn't want you to take a bag that size carryon." Me: "Thank you, I'm sure you're doing a good job, but I can assure you this bag fits, or I'll send it back to TUMI and bonus you the $450 it cost me. After all, I got it here on an Air Canada flight!"

If you want your airline to be as successful as Air Canada, I suggest you hire even more people to harass and micromanage your passengers. After all, having people working for you whose sole job is to annoy your clients is an excellent use of company money.

And yes, the bag fit.


If your "streamlined technology" fails to support the customer's convenience, make sure you delay your passengers and argue with them. Passengers love to argue and delays allow them to extend the travelling experience.

On two occasions now, I've made the mistake of going up to the Air Canada counter agent to get a ticket I should have been able to get at the computer kiosk. After the usual check in process, I had to argue to be allowed be allowed to take my specially designed, perfectly sized carryon luggage, carryon. This took almost 30 minutes.

Finally they relented. After clearing security (which is thankfully very fast in Victoria), I know I'm cutting it close - it's only 10 minutes before my flight will leave. I arrive at the Air Canada gate and see the same Agent that kept me arguing for 30 minutes at check in.

Agent: "Sir, the flight is closed; it's 10 minutes to take off."

After realizing I'm now in a Saturday Night live episode, I watched the plane sit on the tarmac for 10 minutes and then take off. I then rescheduled my entire trip, canceled meetings, and stayed overnight in Vancouver.

So, if you want to be as beloved as Air Canada, make sure you train your employees to argue with your passengers at every turn. Make sure your customers know your business better than your staff does! However, if you want to be a successful airline, perhaps do what the WestJet employees do, and help me with my compliant roller bag.


Charge for everything. In fact make it unbearable for your passengers. Starve them, freeze them, and then make them BRIBE you to solve the problem. It doesn't matter how much you're charging just make sure they're so uncomfortable they have to crack open the wallet.

We've all been there. Pay $2 for a bag of nuts, $8 bucks for a stale sandwich, $10 to watch movies.. some airlines even charge you money to stay warm. A real exchange I witnessed:

Elderly Lady: Excuse me, could I have a blanket? Flight Attendant "We have a blow up pillow and blanket in a packet. You can keep the pillow, but its $2"

So, if you want nickel and dime your passengers to death to try and make up some of the money you're losing, charge for everything. OR try trimming the Gestapo from the payroll and hand out some peanuts, some food and God forbid, a blanket for an old lady.


Scold your customers, oh those bad, evil people who pay your salaries, pay your equipment leases and buy your fuel. Scold them like children and treat them like they've never flown before. Then storm off as the jingle begins on the safety announcement drop down screens.

We know that we can't use our Blackberries and iPhones after the warning goes, but if you can see we're just trying to hurriedly finish our email or answer a question, let us finish. Then trust us to put the device away like you asked us to. We are adults and we can follow rules if asked politely.

How about this approach? Trust your customers and say something like, "sir would you be able to please turn that off just after you finish that quick message; I'd really appreciate it, thank you."

I'm sure there's no FAA regulation saying that flight attendants can't say "please" and "thank you" when asking passengers do something. However, if there is an FFA rule I would like to report Southwest, WestJet and Alaska Airlines for using these contraband words.


Create an "alliance" and share the misery so your customers have a miserable experience wherever they might be. After all, you're aiming for consistency!

The Star Alliance deal between United and Air Canada is a true alliance between equals. After all, they both filed bankruptcy, both are major carriers in their countries and both try to make their customers as miserable as possible.

I'm sure Canadians reading this are thinking "I hate Air Canada" and Americans are thinking "I hate United". This is actually an incredible achievement. Most brands struggle endlessly to maintain a consistent image and deliver a standardized level of customer service. To coordinate something like this across two different, unconnected companies is REVOLUTIONARY.


Spend lots of money on sending your messages out to your "frequent flyer's" (aka, everyone dumb enough to sign up for your program) because people want spam in their inbox. Make sure you send it regularly too - at least twice a week. You want to be able to irritate your customers even when they're not flying with you.

While you're planning out your email strategy, make sure you only send confirmations in glorious HTML, with all kinds of links and pretty pictures, so it takes a long time and lots of bandwidth to download your emails on their smartphones, even if they're out of the country and roaming.

I do this computer stuff for a living, but it took me at least an hour on a few separate occasions to figure out how to opt out of all of those boxes I missed. That kind of marketing just gets me angry. Stop talking at me, and talk with me.


Charge A LOT to change travel plans, and don't compensate your customers when you have a problem. Making airline travel expensive preserves the glamour and mystique of the experience.

Hey, things outside of our control happen, but only to the airlines - customers don't do anything important or have lives. Thus, you can charge the heck out of them. Charge them to wait on standby. Charge them to change flights. If you have to credit them because you screwed up, make sure the credits are hard to use so you can keep their money anyhow.

The more expensive it is for them, the less likely they are to change their plans, and the more inconvenient it is redeem credits, the less likely you are to see them again. After all, your airline would be far more efficient if it didn't have all those pesky passengers to deal with.

We Road Warriors are fine with having our flights cancelled due to mechanical troubles. Nobody wants to risk a faulty plane, but sometimes we have time sensitive plans. Meetings we can't miss. Personal matters to attend to like birthdays or funerals where it's important that we need to be there, but not everyone can afford to pay hundreds of dollars in change fees because there has been a problem on your end.

I've waited in Winnipeg for three hours because I couldn't switch to a stand by without paying the $500 difference in fares. At the time I had a $3,500 credit with Air Canada, but couldn't use that credit to pay the stand by fees, because it was Air Canada policy not to allow flight credits for standby fees!

These are the 7 rules that you can be sure NOT to follow if you want to be a popular, well liked, profitable airline.

Take them to heart, learn the lessons from them, or consider adopting the Air Canada slogan for your airline: Air Canada - we're not happy until you're not happy!

PS: Here is a great link to a travel expert that talks about the industry - subscribe to the news letter; get the books by Chris McGinnis - business travel advisor extraordinaire:

Tim Vasko

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