“"Many years ago, our company founder, Al Conklin, sold a new twin-engine business aircraft to a very successful entrepreneur. He had established a bit of a rapport with the individual and, after the sale, asked him straight out, 'How can you justify the cost of this airplane?' His reply? 'What is the cost of a divorce?'"–David Wyndham, president, Conklin & de Decker”
What to expect from your pilot and crew
They are greeters, baggage handlers, cabin attendants, brand ambassadors and–oh, yes–they’re responsible for piloting your charter flight. Charter providers, eager to distinguish themselves in a competitive market, are touting the customer service their flight crews provide. That makes sense. Pilots are charter companies’ primary point of contact with customers, so having a passenger-pleasing crew is a key to attracting repeat business.
Nevertheless, many charter operators don’t provide flight crews with customer-service training, and charter brokers have no control over how the aircraft and crews they engage are operated (see box). That said, most charter providers include customer-service protocols in their operations policies, and today’s charter pilots understand that carrying bags and interacting with passengers is part of the job. Furthermore, whether they provide formalized customer-service instruction or not, charter operators typically hire pilots who are people-oriented, a trait that can trump any training.
“The smiling face certainly goes a long way when it comes to customer service,” said Don Haloburdo, vice president and general manager of Switzerland-based Jet Aviation’s U.S. arm in Teterboro, N.J., which provides customer-service training for its flight crews.
Large-cabin aircraft typically have a steward aboard, but the cockpit crew still retains responsibility for many aspects of customer service. Here’s what you should expect from a first-class crew:
Before Your Flight
Upon arrival at the FBO, you should be greeted by at least one crewmember–preferably the captain. “We don’t want the customer going to the front desk saying, ‘I’m going to Orlando–looking for my flight crew,’” said Mark McQueary, director of training for Travel Management Company in Elkhart, Ind. The crewmember should take charge of your luggage and escort you through the FBO (if you’re not driving onto the ramp) and explain where the aircraft is and how you’ll get to it (on foot or via a golf cart or FBO van). All arrangements for catering, requested magazines or other passenger preferences should be complete and should be reviewed with you.
Once you’re aboard the aircraft, the captain should explain the operation of all cabin amenities and brief you on the flight, time en route and any conditions or issues that could affect the journey. You should be encouraged to come to the cockpit anytime with questions or requests.
If a mechanical issue or weather causes a delay, the crew should immediately advise you of the problem and potential solutions, keep you updated throughout the delay and have contingencies in place, such as ensuring that backup lift will be quickly available if it is needed.
During Your Flight
After the aircraft reaches cruise altitude, a crewmember should check on your comfort and confirm that you can operate environmental, communication and entertainment systems. A crewmember should prepare, serve and bus catered food. The crew should offer to contact the destination to make sure that any arranged ground transportation is in place. They should be attentive to your needs and to your body language to gauge the level of attention you desire during the flight. “Eighty percent of the [customer service] component is based on body language,” said Bob Hobbi, president and CEO of ServiceElements International in Scottsdale, Ariz., which offers customer-service training for flight crews. “We teach crews to read body language and recognize signs of trouble.”
The crew should immediately communicate any information that affects time en route, destination airport or other deviation from plan. Your input should be solicited when appropriate for any decisions that would affect you–for example, whether to hold or go to an alternate airport in case of a weather delay. Should you want to change your destination or alter other plans mid-flight, the crew should discuss options with you and engage all the operator’s resources to try to meet your request.
The captain should solicit your comments and suggested improvements about the flight and service. If you’re making a multi-leg trip, the captain should review and confirm plans for the next flight. Crewmembers should assist you in deplaning and at least one should supervise your expedient access to ground transportation and departure toward your final destination. You should expect your crew to be debriefed by the operator so your preferences and comments can be recorded in order to improve service on future flights.
“That’s where you’re getting at the true elements of customer service,” said Bob Marinace, president and CEO of Key Air in Oxford, Conn., which instituted aircrew customer-service training upon switching its focus from the wholesale (brokers) to the retail (end-users) charter market after the 2008 economic meltdown.
The best operators will be ready to help you with unexpected problems even after you land. If your ground transportation fails to materialize, for example, a crewmember will often arrange a rental car and chauffer you to your final destination.
Some may go to greater lengths. Brian Kirkdorfer, president of Van Nuys, Calif.-based Clay Lacy Aviation, recalls a charter customer who forgot a suitcase at home when traveling to Cabo San Lucas on vacation. The company, which trains its flight crews in customer service, dispatched an employee to retrieve the bag, hop on a commercial flight and deliver it to the customer.
A Tip about Brokered Flights
A charter broker has no control over the flight crew or operation of the chartered aircraft, beyond choosing the operator. If you are chartering through a broker, make your customer service expectations clear, including details regarding aircraft configuration, catering and any other preferences you may have.
Your Obligations as Customer
Don’t like brown M&Ms? Charter providers are used to dealing with unusual requests and demanding clientele. Expect the crew to try to accommodate your wishes. However, you must accept any decision the crew makes regarding the flight. You also must comply with federal regulations. For example, the flight crew must check the identification of all passengers before each flight, even during a multiday trip with the same passengers. Some crews may “overlook” the ID check in such situations, perhaps to minimize customer inconvenience. This is not customer service, however–it’s a red flag: A crew willing to overlook one requirement will likely waive others; and that’s a slippery slope that can ultimately compromise safety.