Airline upgrades: ensuring customer experience means more business

Every airline wants to ensure that they retain the exclusivity around Business and First Class travel and rightly so. However, on countless trips, they end up flying an empty business/first class, while they have oversold their economy class giving them the moniker of ‘cattle class’. The check-in desk then has to make the difficult decision on who they can upgrade. Their selection criteria can be very arbitrary ranging from ‘are you a gold customer’ to ‘how smartly are you dressed’. From a customer experience point of view, every time I get a complimentary upgrade, I want to fly the same airlines more often. I think they like me.

I travel between London and Mumbai for work as well as personal reasons, and over the past few years I have stuck to one airline. I even had a co-branded credit card from them. When I was not using up my precious points to upgrade, they would give me a complimentary upgrade. Then suddenly it stopped. They had become a dominant market player and planes were full, so they stopped doing upgrades. Even though I was a gold tier, I got the excuses ranging from ‘the flight is full’ to ‘you are not on the list’. I can understand a full flight, but I still don’t understand how to make it to the list. I felt cheated as if ditched by a partner. Customer experience had been flushed down a toilet at 10,000 feet.

Enter Kingfisher Airlines. Touting to be India’s only Five Star Airline, I had to give it a try. So in true investigative spirit, I flew them on economy. I am not sure if I can say that it is any different from any other bog standard airline – except a clean aircraft + nice staff. Now it is the time for me to check out their business class. However, I am trying to see if they provide me with an upgrade, as a way to lure more ‘business type’ passengers away. This is yet to happen, but I am hoping the experience will be better than what I have seen on this sector so far.

Last week, while I booked another economy ticket from Mumbai to London, there was a link which claimed that you could book ‘business & first class tickets for 75% less’. This was a link on the Kingfisher website itself. I clicked through, which bought me to the website of On the Optiontown website, I can pay a small sign-up free (like £5) and a ‘Upgrade price’ (less than the usual price of ticket). If seats are available, Optiontown upgrades me at the price I paid it. If not upgraded, my Upgrade price is refunded! The airline gains by having not flown an empty seat and flying a more ‘deserving passenger’ (based on affordability rather than one’s choice of perfume). The passenger gains by having not paid the full price. Optiontown gets a service fee. It is a win-win for everyone. Currently Optiontown has partnered with Kingfisher, SAS and Air Canada. But I think this will increase and we are onto something here.

Even though I preferred to chance my luck to get a complimentary upgrade with Kingfisher rather than signing upto Optiontown, I think Optiontown has a great business idea. We might see it evolve into a bidding website or add more frills. The barriers to entry are medium – it requires partnership with airlines – but Optiontown has a first mover advantage in this space.

Every now and then, I come across a website or a business that makes me want to say Why didn’t I think of this before. Last year, it was Twitter. I blogged about it on our CTO blog, and the rest they say is history. Twitter has grown and now has changed many aspects of communication as we know it. I hope disrupts the travel business in similar ways. It is also a great customer experience enhancer for Kingfisher. Looking forward to an upgrade, watch this space…

(This blog appeared in Capgemini’s Customer Experience Blog in Nov 2009)


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