Management & Operations

Airlines’ failure provides lesson for bus operators

Posted on April 1, 2001 by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

I hate to fly. No, I’m not afraid of flying, but I hate the inconvenience of flight delays and cancellations, faulty baggage handling and lengthy waits on the tarmac because of overcrowded gates. An annual study that grades the performance of the airlines indicates that I’m not alone. According to the study, the airline industry’s overall rating for 2000 dropped 11% compared to 1999. Of the 12 airlines studied, only three had improved their customer service in the past year. The bottom line is that airlines are lousy at customer service and they don’t seem to want to improve. Are we doing any better? Although it would be nice to say that transit bus and motorcoach operators always deliver the high quality of customer service that seems to elude the airlines, I’m not sure that would be entirely accurate. The airlines certainly have no monopoly on shoddy service. Bus operations also are plagued by late arrivals, departures, cancellations, overcrowded conditions, the whole gamut of ills that make people think twice about ever using any form of public transportation again. Now more than ever, however, bus operators, public and private, cannot afford to deliver anything less than top-flight service. With high fuel prices, an uncertain economy and eroding consumer confidence, transportation providers cannot afford to betray their customers—not even once. To that end, Jon LeSage’s article, “How to Sharpen Your Market Research Strategies,” explains how transit agencies are improving customer service using ridership surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews. The market-research techniques employed by many transit agencies aren’t terribly complex, but, like any good tool, they need to be used for the proper purpose. Managers need to know why they’re doing a study as much as they need to know how to do it. As Jon points out, transit agencies need to recognize the importance of soliciting community input before a project is initiated. Too many transportation “enhancements” have proven to be washouts because the real needs of the community were ignored. The article also discusses how bus manufacturers are using market research to meet the needs of end-users. By studying market research gathered by transit agencies and through proprietary sources, manufacturers can fine-tune their products and deliver exactly what the customer wants. This reduces their overhead and, consequently, trims costs for the agency and, ultimately, the guy on the street who needs a ride. Deliver more than a smile On the motorcoach side, customer service is even more crucial than for public transit operators. After all, we’re talking about margins so narrow that a few extra customers per trip could spell the difference between success and a trip to bankruptcy court. In her article “Getting the Word Out About Motorcoach Travel,” Managing Editor Leslie Davis heard from key motorcoach industry officials about ways to revitalize the industry. Not surprisingly, customer service and effective marketing were offered as key components of any sensible plan to increase revenue. More than just a smile on the face of the driver, motorcoach operators need to provide their prospective customers with service that is safe, efficient, economical and flexible. And they need to sell their image to the public. Motorcoach operators, especially the smaller ones, have not done a good job in creating a presence in the marketplace. Almost anyone can name a half-dozen airlines without much effort, but ask them to name even two local or national motorcoach operators and you’ll probably draw a long, silent pause. This anonymity is regretful, especially when you compare the price and quality of service provided by bus operators compared to the airlines. The traveling public deserves better treatment than they’re getting in the air; bus operators need to make sure they’re prepared to provide it on the ground.

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