Lessons I've learned from a million miles in the air: the mile high club

Written by : Tim Vasko | Published on October 28, 2006
Category: Wealth and Investing

NO! Not that "Mile High" club! YES, I'm afraid it's true - I've joined the ranks of business travelers who have accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to take a family of six around the world seventeen times.

Also known as "Road Warriors," we're the ladies and gents who pay homage to the airport bars on Friday afternoons with circles under our eyes, beer or wine glass on the table, using our thumbs to crank out work messages, or seemingly talking to ourselves as our Bluetooth head set invisibly hooks us to someone somewhere. We're the folks who Westin created the "Heavenly" bed for, so we could crash after the hell we've paid, and the endless line ups we've endured while travelling . . . .

Line ups at security -- stripping down nearly to our skivvies, and then still beeping for some unknown reason (maybe magnetic resonance permanently in our brains from our head sets? Or our bionic BlackBerry thumbs?). . . .

Lines at the airline counter when the computer terminals don't give us a boarding pass . . . lines to board the plane . . . lines on the jet way . . . lines to de-plane . . . lines for the cabs and the airport shuttles . . . lines for the life-giving essence of a coffee at an airport terminal Starbucks (or Tim Horton's in Canada). . . well, you get the picture -- there are a HELL of a lot of lines.

I've collected a few of my thoughts while in these line ups -- some not-so-kind thoughts, some that sound like ##kS## -- about the airlines that have made my travels miserable, and the precious few that have kept me smelling the roses while they delivered me to my destination.

This is my -rant' on the worst airlines in Canada and the US; and what the BEST do differently. True, this is a rant from a weary Road Warrior, but there are lessons here that can relate to the success or failure of any business. These are real "what-not-to-do" lessons akin to "what not to wear" when you're trying to market, sell and serve your customers one-to-one. It's about the difference between caring about what your customers need and want, whether in cyber space or in ar space. These are rules you can take to the bank, or take to bankruptcy.

Lessons Learned

I'd gladly take my frequent flyer miles on one airline, like the good old days of customer loyalty, if I could just find one airline that actually flew to where I had to be -- and one that I could actually stand to be on.

Truth is, the only airlines I know today that are worth setting foot on are the "regionals" (thank goodness, they are rapidly expanding their "regions").

So what have I learned from the line-ups and the millions of air miles?

Some airlines just can't seem to figure it out, could care less to figure it out, and just won't get out of the business so good operators can get in. They operate the routes we Road Warriors have to fly to get to our customers, so we get in their seats while they keep diving deeper into financial and customer service bankruptcy.

Here are 7 Rules and Lessons about customer service that come from the heart -- or rather perhaps from the seat of my weary Road Warrior pants. It's a short story of the "glamorous" life of business travel (or what I thought was glamorous 25 years ago anyway). It's dedicated to the women and men who brave the skies for weeks on end, driving more money into the smaller guys' pockets. (And all you family travelers as well, as you fly to see loved ones -- and anyone else who's had to endure those less than "friendly skies".)

These are 7 Rules and lessons on why I care as much about who I DON'T fly with as a frequent flyer (or attempt to avoid at all costs) as who I DO fly with -- and why I always try to stay at a Starwood Hotel or a Fairmont, find a Southwest flight in the USA, or fly WestJet in Canada.

And here too is why I now always seek the cheapest air fare, and why I gladly accept -- yes, GLADLY accept -- another airline line-up with Southwest in the United States, even though it might hold the possibility of getting a middle seat -- or why I gleefully jump aboard WestJet in Canada.

My experiences with these carriers has led to me to coin the Tim Vasko airline maxim: THE LOWER THE AIRFARE, THE BETTER THE SERVICE.

This is the best of the best in the Chapter 11 Bible of the Airlines. I propose that we can use the following lessons in our own businesses, customer service, and products.

Use them or abuse them jet-hopper, and you will either build great businesses or great messes!

Seven Chapter 11 Airline Rules: "How to Ground Your Fleet Permanently, or How to Use These Same Lessons to Break the Surly Bonds of Earth and See the Face of Success."


  • Make your customers' life as difficult as possible. At the last minute, when they are the most stressed, ensure that they can't make their flight; in fact, make them change their entire week - Air Canada is famous for this - in fact they go out of their way. Air Canada now has special agents hired, a sort of Gestapo (keep this thought in mind as you read on), to police people going through security with airline standard sized roll-on bags.

And I quote, from an actual encounter with the Air Canada Carry on 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,"

I respond, "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, now as serious as the Home Land Security Police "Sir, I'm hired by Air Canada to reduce the number of carry on bags, Air Canada doesn't want you to have that bag on the airline."

I respond, "Thank you, I'm sure you"re doing a good job, carry on good soldier . it fits or I'll send it back to TUMI and bonus you the $450 it cost me."

Take-off (Take Away) Lesson #1:

Can you believe Air Canada has this guy on the payroll to do this job? So here's customer service lesson 101; take every job on the payroll that is standing in the way of your business offering offending "service" to your customers in your company, and you might just be able to give away that bag of peanuts rather than asking your customers to pony up for a Toonie (a 2 dollar Canadian coin). Yep, 2 bucks for peanuts on Air Canada now, even on a five hour flight coast to coast!

Post Script: TUMI is safe, the bag fit fine. Sorry, no refund from TUMI and no bonus of $450 bucks fella.


  • If the streamlined technology fails to support the customer's convenience, make sure you make his/her life as inconvenient as possible; delay, delay, argue, delay.

On two occasions now, I've made the mistake of going up to the Air Canada counter agent to get my ticket I should have been able to get at the computer kiosk (ok, I'm a slow learner - but when I did finally get my ticket, it was the Gestapo that caught me at Security).

Little did I know that the Gestapo starts at the check-in counter with the ticket Agents! I was asked to put my bag on the scale, and when it didn't pass the weight test, I took out my books I was taking back East (now it hit the ridiculously low 20 lbs max at Air Canada for carry on). I had to argue (ok implore) to get to roll my bag on as I put my books in my back-pack brief case; it felt like a sorry episode of Law and Order while I stood there arguing my "case" to get to the plane to make my connection.

The result? I finally got to roll my bag through to the plane, which used a cart system on this commuter (that's where you put your bag on a cart anyway, and they put it in with the checked bags. The only difference being you get to roll it to your next flight, which is a BIG difference in the Vancouver airport if you have a tight connection). And this was a tight connection to get to my Toronto flight (which the Gestapo could clearly see on his screen).

The commuter from Victoria was now about to leave after this 30 minute discourse; once through security, which is always fast at Victoria, and a short hop to the Air Canada gate, a good 10 minutes before the flight, I see the same Agent. "Sir, the flight is closed, it's 10 minutes to take off." Having no more energy and realizing I'm now in a Saturday Night live episode, I watched the plane sit on the tarmac for 10 minutes. My favorite Air Canada Gestapo Agent came out of the jet way, the door closed; I sat watching the prop airplane take off.

This delay cost me a day - my next best flight was the next morning to get to Toronto with an over night required in the Vancouver Fairmont (although it's a fabulous hotel, and I got in a work out to blow off the stress). I had to stay overnight, take the next flight out at 6am to the East Coast, losing what should have been a half a day of business meetings that I had to reschedule . but wait, there's more to the story .

And this is not the first time Air Canada, has made business travel a nightmare, but a second on the same issue (ok, ok, I'm a slow learner).

Solution, don't fly Air Canada (they don't need the money anyway, they're protected in Bankruptcy and with Government grants, or give up and check the bag, forget the $450 bucks you paid TUMI for the carry on qualified luggage) and check it. Take a bigger bag (more weight uses more fuel). Wait for it, so Air Canada can employ more people on the payroll to bring the bag you could have carried yourself. Spend the extra 30 – 45 minutes time, while they do their redundant job, rather than saving the fuel, payroll and my time when, rather, I could just get to the cab at the other end of my flight.

On another occasion, I missed a very important meeting with some Government officials, same reasons, same circumstances, heck, for all I know it was the same Air Canada ticket agent; no it wasn't, it was the "Borg," they have been assimilated..

Take-off (Take Away) Lesson #2:

Funny, West Jet loves helping me get on with my compliant roller bag. But then, their flight attendants help clean the plane at the end of the flight too (just like on Southwest in the US) - hmm, less fuel, less payroll, faster unloads for the people who have to check bags'. I wonder??!!

Know your business and business travelers (or the frequent flyers in your business).

Air Canada, United and Delta, all the Chapter 11 Operations Manual holders, have, like most of us, customers who know their business better than they do. Well the customer part anyway, after all, the customers wear their own shoes (unless going through security for a few minutes).

Who do you thinks travels more? The Road Warrior Executives, the Gestapo, or Airline Ticket Agents? We road warriors don't want to crowd the aisles or keep our bags in front of our feet on a five hour flight any more than we want to wait an extra 30 minutes at the other end to claim our bags. We do this for a living - do what you do for a living the best, and know that your customer is not trying to make your business or your life miserable; they are just trying to be efficient and productive. Just like you are; unless, of course, you have Chapter 11 in your operations manual.


  • Charge for everything, every little thing. In fact make it unbearable unless you charge for it. Starve them, freeze them, and then BRIBE them to solve the problem. It doesn't matter how much, $2 bucks, $5 bucks, just make sure to get them so damn hungry or cold that they have to crack open the wallet.

Take-off (Take Away) Lesson #3:

It's $2 for a bag of nuts on Air Canada, $5 bucks for a stale sandwich and I couldn't believe this one; I was on the plane to Toronto, finally (the 6am flight I was bumped to had a mechanical failure and needed to be disembarked, reloaded on the 8:30am flight), and it was Freeeeezing. I had a sport coat. An elderly lady asked the kind flight attendant for a pillow and blanket .

Flight Attendant "We have a blow up pillow and blanket in a packet. You can keep the pillow . it's $2".

Refer to Lesson #1 - fire the Gestapo, trim the payroll and hand out some peanuts, maybe even, god forbid, a cup of yogurt, and a blanket to the women and children on the ship!


  • Scold your customers, oh those bad evil people who pay your salaries, pay your equipment leases and buy your fuel. When those nesciences of set occupiers are trying to eek out one last email on their BlackBerry or phone call, scold them like children. Then storm off as the jingle begins on the safety announcement drop down screens' what were the words to that song in the days oh so long ago when I was an Executive Mileage Plus card holder? ". Fly the Friendly Skies . United."

Take-off (Take Away) Lesson #4:

Yep, that's me, a BlackBerry addict; wanting to finish one last thought for the folks back home on someone to contact so our customers don't feel ignored, to answer a question, or so we can get them some help immediately; the very reason I carry the thing.

Uh oh, here comes Unice United, the meanest, toughest, flight enforcer you've ever met. Have you met Unice? She's about 5'4', blue skirt and blouse, and she's out to get you. If she catches you on the BlackBerry, the cell phone, the iPod buds in your ears, you're a gonner! Seriously, this is the real thing. She'll take you down from 25,000 feet. Be afraid, be VERY afraid.

And, United apparently has baggage Gestapo too; my brother-in-law and sister, who live in China (you think I've got a lot of miles), ran into the Gestapo on their once annual home leave. Think they got a break on the extra bag? No way, and, oh by the way, they were made late for their flight too. Oh well what's another night spent when you're trying to reach the other side of the world - they lose a day anyway!

Let's tell Unice that the guy pounding out a last minute message knows the rules. But Unice, this customer has something important to say. How about this Unice? Trust your customers and just mention, one more time, quietly, ". sir would you be able to -please' turn that off just after you finish that quick message; I'd really appreciate it, -thank you'" (Oh, those magic words Mom told us about, please and thank-you)!

Is this an FAA regulation Unice United? The FAA better call Southwest, Alaska and the Air Mounties in Canada, West Jet, because I always get the Please and Thank You from these guys. Oh yeah, Unice, I get free peanuts too!


  • Create an "alliance" and share the misery, misery loves company; treat your customers the same on both sides of the border with the Star Alliance.

Take-off (Take Away) Lesson #5:

The Star Alliance between United and Air Canada is a true Alliance. They both filed bankruptcy, both are major carriers in their countries, both follow the same Chapter 11 Rules in their operations manual and continue to be true to the Code; or like the line from "Pirates of the Caribbean" about the Pirate Code of Parlay ".. It's more like a set of guidelines than rules.."

It seems the unspoken Code between the airlines, like Southwest, West Jet, and Alaska Air (and as I understand from good reports, Jet Blue) that I chose when ever possible, is say please and thank you, give out a bag of nuts and be a little nutty (humor never hurts), and show up on time (or if you don't - help out). On West Jet, when my family and I were delayed more than 2 hours we got that leg of our trip in credits in the mail!. We could combine the credits, and I was able to get a full ticket for my wife to join me on a trip. On Southwest, we got a free drink coupon, which I immediately cashed in for a Silver Bullet (the only Bullet I know of allowed on planes).


  • Spend lots of money on sending your messages out to your "frequent flyers"; well at least any one and everyone dumb enough to sign up for your program and forget to uncheck the box that guarantees you'll send them junk they don't want in their email in-box. And send it regularly, maybe two times a week.

And send confirmations in glorious HTML, with all kinds of links and pretty pictures, that only work while your Road Warrior customers are sitting at a computer; making it completely unusable when they are sitting where they usually sit, on your airplane, or standing in a line to use your Automated Kiosk that is asking them for their confirmation booking number they can't possibly get from your HTML email on their BlackBerry (yea, that device Unice United is going to rip them for using if they can ever find that damn confirmation code buried in all the HTML code that appears on the BlackBerry in text, rather than all those pretty pictures you paid some graphic arts department to create).

Take-off (Take Away) Lesson #6:

Other than my executive assistant, my wife and my staff, who knows where I'll be this week?

If I'm traveling on your Air Canada flight, do you think I might be away from my computer? You asked me to check a box (or rather uncheck a box) to get your e-junk mail (SPAM) about all those fabulous vacation destinations I can fly to (never mind, I just took the whole family on Alaska Air from Seattle, instead of Victoria, to Mexico at 1/3rd the price - it was a great trip thanks), but you've never asked me if I want my travel confirmations in plain text, with the Confirmation Code I need at check in, clear and at the top of the page. Here's a clue, if I'm flying on your airline, your email will probably come to me on my BlackBerry, Treo, or maybe even in my SMS cell phone - oh that's if you bothered to ask me.

Hey, how about spending the money on the right technology to reach your customers, the way they want to be reached, on a personal 1to1 basis, rather, than on all those pretty pictured emails I don't want. One other suggestion, make it easier for me to tell you what I want and don't want - PLEASE. 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 .. I'd much rather have what I need when I need it.

PS: You know better than my assistant, staff and wife where I'll be, and the time I'll be there - how about letting them know if I give you permissions to?!


  • Charge A LOT to change travel plans - and don't compensate when you have a problem.

Hey, things happen, but only to the airlines -- not in our customers' busy business lives. So just charge the heck out of them. Charge them to Standby like Air Canada does. Charge them a $100 change fee, stand United on this one with the Star Alliance. And if the passenger has a credit coming, make it so difficult to use that the passenger can't use it! That's called the "keep what they paid for, but didn't use" profit model in the Chapter 11 Rule Book.

Oh, and make sure to charge them more than Southwest, Alaska Air or West Jet. Make it hard to change and expensive - that way their plans won't change.

Take-off (Take Away) Lesson #7:

Your aircraft, just like sometimes our businesses, are going to cause delays. I was up at 4:30am, after being forced to miss my connection by the roller bag Gestapo at Air Canada to catch the 6:00am flight the next morning. That way I could get to my afternoon meetings - right. NOT! This was a new aircraft that had a brake screen malfunction.

Now, I'm not one to want to fly on a defective aircraft, especially one without breaks; I've seen a wrecked fuselage in Hong Kong Harbor; I understand the consequences. And I accept that equipment breaks down or doesn't work right. Like the last trip when I missed my Government meeting, after getting past the roller bag Gestapo on Air Canada, that plane had the breaks lock up, and it was delayed two hours going West (can you guys PLEASE call Midas?).

I've never once, from Air Canada or United, had any compensation. On my Mom's 75th Birthday, I had 75 red roses (I always send Mom roses on her Birthday), and I had booked on United to fly to Sacramento to surprise her at dinner. My Dad was in on it. "Tell her you're taking her to Sacramento for a nice dinner Dad," I told him. "I'll fly in and be there ahead of you."

But United's plane to Sacramento was grounded. The replacement aircraft? Long after the surprise. A $300 ticket - Mom turns 75 only once. "Can you re-book me on another airline?" I asked. "No. Not unless this flight is cancelled completely. They're working on it." My pleading response: "You said that two hours ago -- the last flight I can catch to make it leaves in an hour . . . "

What did I do? You guessed it, Southwest. I went to the SWA ticket counter, "Look I need to get on your next flight out." Ticket agent responds, "I'm sorry sir, the flight is booked, and we can't guarantee you'll get on until all the reservations show up or not." Me, perplexed, "What do you mean .?" The SWA agent explains, "Well, we hold some reservations until the day of the flight, refundable reservations. Some of those people haven't showed up to purchase their tickets. If they don't show up, you can get on."

Wait, I think, didn't I call SWA before I booked my non-refundable ticket on United? "Is my name on that list?" I ask. "Let me check, Timothy Vasko? Yes, it is," replies the agent. I pull out my plastic, "Here's my card." Ticket agent takes it, "$350 Sir, you're on; have a nice dinner."

So I tried to save $50, I never did use that United ticket, lost the $300 bucks, got there in time to surprise Mom and give her the roses (they were even set up on the table in a vase, all 75 of them as the center piece), and was able to hug her and see her cry! Thanks to Southwest!

Air Canada's the same as United. They also use this hook to keep the cash. I've waited in Winnipeg for three hours because I couldn't stand by without paying the difference in fares. I had a $3,500 credit for a last minute flight to New York that a client had paid for, but I didn't use - and when I tried to use the credit, Air Canada said, "You can only use a ticket for one other ticket." I looked at them. "But my credit runs out at the end of the month, and the flight I need to take is only $500." Air Canada's famous line, "Sorry sir, that's our policy."

Remember the WestJet credits for waiting two hours? I had those for almost a year too, about $400. I called in and I told the agent, "My family won't be flying for a while, what can I do with these? I do need to take a trip and would like to take my wife, but it's after the year expires and I'm not sure of the dates?" Their response: "We'll just book the trip, we'll combine the credits for your wife's ticket, and I'll note that you can change the ticket without penalty. That way you protect your credit. And if she doesn't travel, you can transfer the credit back to you for a trip you'll be taking!"

My Assistant told me that she got a call once that a trip she'd changed with WestJet about a year earlier had a credit; they called to remind us to use it before the year expired.

Hats off to Southwest and WestJet (who I understand also have a sort of alliance -- West Jet's board members also have ties to Southwest and Jet Blue, go figure) for their personalized customer service systems!

As I said earlier, these are 7 lessons you can take to the bank or bankruptcy in customer service and 1to1Marketing. At our company, our choice is to take these lessons to the bank. I'd rather operate from the Southwest and WestJet operations manual -- I think we'll fly a lot further, a lot longer, a lot more profitably.

Oh sure, we all have bad days, bad attitudes, and the occasional slip up -- but let it be the EXCEPTION. Never let it be this mantra related to me from another Road Warrior on Air Canada:

"Air Canada - we're not happy until you're not happy!"

PS: Three cheers for Starwood Hotels -- I'm a Platinum Guest, and they never fail to make the room at the other end, the bed, the service, make up for all the Chapter 11 Rules and Lines I've had to endure to get to see my Clients . . . oh yeah, that's the reason we travel guys -- email is great, so is VOIP, BlackBerry, etc -- but while we'd rather be at home in our own beds, we get out here to see our customers and give them the best service we can.

PPS: 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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