A Gold Star for Air New Zealand, At Your Service

You’re sitting back relaxing on your flight from the US down to New Zealand when all of a sudden you realize you forgot to book your hotel. Ah crap. Or let’s say you and your geographically ignorant friends are flying from NZ to Vancouver and you’re debating whether Toronto or Montreal is the capital of the country. How do you settle the bet (and find out that you’re both wrong)?

Say hello to Air New Zealand’s onboard concierge service, a “walking Wikipedia,” if you will. They’ve decided to put someone on each long haul flight to help you with all your problems. (Um, maybe not ALL of them.) And that’s why they get the Gold Star today.

This concierge will be an additional crew member that will have no duties other than helping customers with whatever they need. Now admittedly, many of those questions could easily be answered with an internet connection, so is this just a stopgap measure to achieve the same thing until onboard internet becomes a reality or is there more here? I spoke with Ed Sims, Group General Manager International Airline for Air New Zealand, and he had more details.

Cranky: Practically, how will someone flag this person down onboard? Do you just ring your call button or ask a flight attendant? Or, will there a set location where you can go to find this person?

Ed: We see the IAC [concierge] moving between cabins, with a combination of pre set times to talk to individuals with longer questions like itinerary planning and simply being flagged by passengers with quicker queries ie food and beverage info. I would also envisage key times like top of descent where the IAC and FSM [Flight Service Manager] would work together on [announcements] with onward flight connections and timings. We haven’t designated a meeting area but could easily do so on the the 747 ..and possibly make better use of the galley on the 777. In the near future we would like to see an option on pre order IFE (as per the Virgin America system) where you could book IAC time.

Cranky: Will people in Coach have the same level of access as people in the premium cabins?

Ed: Yes absolutely ..I see the IAC spending most of their time in Economy, making more of a special event for these cabins.

Cranky: How will the person help rebook people during irregular ops? Will they just hop behind a podium and help the existing agents or will they get things done on their own and bring it back to the customer when it’s finished?

Ed: Probably both. The key aspect is that the IAC will not be tied to the flight (or crew) on which they arrived – they will stay with disrupted passengers to work with airport staff to ensure onward travel arrangements. If they miss the next flight due to the nature of these disrupts, they will have to connect with our next service. In the ideal situation they will brief the ground agent with requirements from their flight and return to passengers with confirmed arrangements. We have a rebooking system called Passenger Reaccomodation Management (PRM) which sends an automatic ACARs from the plane to the ground to reselect customers by class for rebookings – and I see the IAC overseeing and communicating this process one on one with disrupted

Cranky: When will the person begin helping people? Will he/she show up at the gate 1 hour prior to departure and work until after everyone has left? What about crew rest issues. Will they only be available for certain parts of the flight?

Ed: Just as our Flight Service Manager (FSM) enters the lounge an hour prior to meet/greet HVCs, we see the IAC at the gate an hour prior, letting people know who they are and what they can do in flight. We are working on an informal variation on the Uniform so they can be recognisable from check in. They will need to take Crew rest during the flight..working mostly 12
hour sectors, there will be times when passenger demands will be lower and this is something we will need to experiment with by route and flight times.

Cranky: Is this a union job that will have strict job guidelines or will it be more of a general, “do everything you can to help” type of job?

Ed: We have scoped the job on an Individual Employment Agreement and the spec will be more “do whatever it takes”..I am not unhappy about the fact that we have already started the discussion on potential collectivisation but that will be more about membership and affiliation than changes to the scope of the role – it will be up to the successful candidates as to whether they would feel happier in a collective.

It sounds like a great program, but one big question remained. What sort of ability will this person have to actually get things done. Would it be more of a “I’m here to give you options” type of position or is it more of a “I can do it for you” position? That makes a big difference, so I asked Ed a followup question.

His response? At first, it will be more limited in scope. He says that the concierge will have access to ACARS, so he/she can radio ahead to get information like connecting gates, etc. And more importantly, the IAC will be able to radio ahead to take care of possible misconnections and other travel problems that require rebooking. But when it comes to actually making someone a hotel reservation, That’s further down the line. He says that he sees it “being used more as a customer service and for peace of mind, rather than to make bookings” at this point, but that doesn’t mean things won’t change down the line.

So there you have it. The concierge can be considered peace of mind, and for a lot of travelers, I think that’s important. I suppose ANZ doesn’t run into the same delay/cancellation problems on their international routes as, say, a domestic US airline flying to JFK does, but it has to happen sometimes. And it’s nice to know that when it does happen, someone will be there to help.

Of course, the extra crew member costs money, so can they really justify it as a service enhancement that will increase revenue? It’s hard to say, but there are potentially other opportunities here to partner with local accommodations and tourist attractions to generate revenue through recommendations. Of course, I’d be very wary about that, but if it’s what it takes to justify paying the extra crewmember, then I think it would be worth it with restrictions.

Most importantly, I agree that’s it a “peace of mind” type of thing. I like knowing that if there’s a problem, then I can ask the concierge to help regardless of where I am in the flight. More importantly, I know that the person will ACTUALLY help me. It’s interesting that most airlines have focused on improving revenue by adding physical improvements like inflight entertainment and better seats. ANZ has certainly done that, but now they’re really angling for the next step – improving service levels as well.

I know it must be hard to justify this extra expense, but I truly hope they can find a way to have this work out. Increases in service levels are all-too-rare these days. I know travelers are often looking for the cheapest fare, but then you can’t really turn around and complain about service. Vote with your wallet and start supporting carriers that have enhanced service levels like this. Maybe it will convince other airlines that it’s actually the way to go.

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