Whenever we think about hospitality, hotels are usually the first thing that comes to mind. During our 6-month mandate as Ambassadors of Swiss International Air Lines, we wanted to broaden our understanding of the meaning of hospitality according to the aviation industry. What better way of finding out than directly going to the field and being surrounded by professionals in the sector? Marie spent a day with the staff and guests in the SWISS Business lounges at Geneva Airport, while Marion took a flight to Porto and helped the Cabin crew in their everyday tasks.
"Place of work: above the clouds"
Let's start this journey by discovering the vision of the four inspiring speakers we accompanied during these two wonderful days.
- Michael Schiess, Head of Lounges, leads a team that is “the highest instance for SWISS in the lounge, representing the brand and leading hospitality daily.”
- Adèle Luthi, Head of Operations, and Magali Brugger, Duty Station Manager, ensure that the clients' prior-to-the-flight experience runs smoothly. They assure that the agents “apply the procedures, the quality, and safety standards.” It is consistent teamwork, communication and coordination, as they act as an intermediary between the two parties
- Martin Ammeter, Head of Cabin, manages all the Cabin crew in Geneva and supervises the cabin operations. He ensures the respect of the standards and is responsible for the continuous development of the Cabin crew members.
The meaning of 'hospitality' for SWISS
We asked our four speakers about their understanding of the word 'hospitality', and the answers were very different. However, each speaker put across some crucial points for SWISS, and they all gave a good representation of this broad term that differs from one sector to another.
The Geneva SWISS Lounges are the starting point of the journey for many passengers. Michael mentioned: “we have to show them the kind heart we have in Switzerland, that we are very special.” Passengers come from all around the globe, and the goal is to show the quality of “legendary Swiss hospitality,” which is required when joining Swiss International Air Lines. The brand trusts the staff lounge to give the first good impression. Michael makes sure to support and strengthen his employees, so they can give their best input to the customers: “I always say that I build the stage, then my staff can perform.”
“We have to show them the kind heart we have in Switzerland, that we
are very special.” Michael Schiess
“Outstanding quality” and “magic moments” are the keywords Martin used numerous times in his answers. He said that much importance is given to the individual and personal side. Like Michael, he thinks trusting the staff to the fullest enables them “to create unforgettable moments that will build customer loyalty and encourage the guests to come back.” The interaction is vital. Staff members like to take a moment to have a conversation and create memorable moments on board that the passenger does not expect. However, sometimes, some of the passengers are not willing to interact. According to Martin: “our strength is to be able to sense what they actually need.”
Again, the diversity of passengers is not insignificant; they all have different needs. Therefore, the crew add a human touch and give a broader choice to the guests: the menu or the time they want to eat. The personalized aspect is, of course, especially emphasized for the business class travelers. For instance, the staff know which wine each client prefers. However, personalization does not only mean knowing the guest’s preferences, but it also gives them options they can choose from, such as pre-ordering their SWISS Saveurs menu or booking their aisle seat in advance.
Adèle and Magali specify that the passenger is at the center. They talked about the “little extra” that makes you stand out. In case of an issue, it is essential that guests feel the staff members are present to assist them. Staff try to be as transparent as possible, which is what passengers appreciate. If the service has always been good, passengers will be more understanding if it goes bad once. Adèle and Magali also pointed out the importance of communication between SWISS personnel. For sure, the smoother the communication is, the more opportunities there are to improve the guest experience and internal processes.
Differences with the hotel industry
Indeed, the aviation and hotel industries share the idea of the customer always remaining at the center of operations. However, we can sense differences in how customer satisfaction is nurtured in the two sectors.
Michael mentioned the time constraint, which is managed differently in the hotel industry. Passengers coming to the lounge have a limited amount of time before taking their flight. All the services requested, such as having lunch, must be delivered quickly. There are waves of people coming to the lounge, usually two hours before the flight, who must be served simultaneously. This “puts much pressure on the system, logistics and facilities.” Then, the lounge goes quiet for some time. Michael also pointed out that unforeseen events can happen, such as a flight cancellation or a plane that must return to the airport. All these events have to be handled efficiently to avoid a failure in the system. The staff members have to offer a service that the guest cannot do by themselves, for example, quickly finding new flight connections.
Adèle and Magali explained that going to the airport is primarily a step from point A to point B: passengers are not at the airport to relax or have a good time: “it is a constraint, something you have to go through.” It is usually stressful, and you never know why people are traveling, it may be for holiday, business or any kind of event. Therefore, the important goal of the airline industry is to transform this way of traveling into a pleasant hospitality journey and make the guest feel serene, safe and welcomed by the different stakeholders throughout the process.
Martin said that the most significant challenge on board is to deal with the only resources available. In a hotel, if a guest asks for a product, the staff usually have it in the kitchen or they can find a solution to purchase it. In contrast, on board, “we count on the creativity and expertise of the crew to offer a high-quality product that will also satisfy the passenger, even though it is different than what was asked for.” Moreover, the safety aspect does not often feature in a hotel, but on board when there is turbulence, safety comes first! This for sure influences the service, but thankfully, passengers are generally understanding.
After all, hotels and airlines have a codependent relationship. Despite their differences, they must align in terms of customer service and work together to create a meaningful journey from A to Z.
“Our strength is to be able to sense what the passengers actually need.” Martin Ammeter
The future of hospitality in the airline industry
Hospitality has come through constant evolution. Hotels have overcome many changes and technological advancements, but “the customer has always been at the center.”
This is how our four speakers see the future of hospitality in the airline industry.
Michael: “The core of customer service will stay the same: giving the best of ourselves to our guests.”
Martin: Airlines can mirror the “eye for detail” they have in the hotel industry. The customer base will evolve and the challenge will be finding services that match customer needs. Individualization is important but needs to be manageable for the staff. They will still be free to perform as long as the standards are respected.
Magali and Adèle: The importance of maintaining the level of quality that has been reached. Despite the evolution that will follow, saving time to offer a consistent service is mandatory. We are heading towards a service that will become increasingly personalizable.
With the pandemic, travel habits have evolved and low-cost companies may not be at the center stage anymore. Instead, people travel less, but when they do, they travel better - spending more on comfort such as in premium economy. For efficiency and health reasons, technology and automation may also become stronger with self-check-ins or self-bag drops. To compensate for the lack of human exchanges at certain times of the journey, trust and one-on-one interactions will be developed and reinforced. Indeed, even though machines will (and already) replace humans, the remaining staff will be more devoted to the guest’s experience.
Other services such as baggage collection directly at home and delivery where the guest will be staying are already established by Swiss in partnership with AirPortr. Here again, we can see how they apply the concept of individualized experience by providing tailored offers. The purpose is to prevent stressful and unpleasant events, and allow passengers to customize their journey according to their needs. Let’s not forget that the sentence “people buy experiences, not products” is already shaping future business ideas and services. The future lies in accommodating the guest’s unique characteristics.
With customer satisfaction and hospitality also comes respect for guests' values and beliefs, such as the involvement of sustainability in their daily lives. SWISS is already one step ahead with the “sun-to-liquid” fuel, which will make it the first airline company to use renewable energy sources. This may attract more passengers who are sensitive to these matters.
“In case of an issue, the staff members try to be as transparent as possible, which is what the passengers appreciate.” Adèle Luthi et Magali Brugger
A few anecdotes in the air
Because we know you are curious about what can happen in the airline industry, we asked our interviewees to share some memorable anecdotes with us.
Michael explained that once, a passenger in the business lounge in Zurich realized he'd forgotten his passport at home in Hamburg, but had to fly to Singapore the next day. As he was a very loyal guest, the SWISS staff hatched a plan. The passenger's wife dropped the passport at Hamburg airport and a SWISS crew member took it during a flight to Zurich. Michael went to the plane's door to pick it up and handed it on time to the passenger, who was very happy. It was definitely a risk, but it was communicated to the guest when they decided to proceed with the idea. Sometimes, the crew has to think outside the box and go beyond standard procedures to please the guest.
Adèle and Magali remembered when a business class passenger did not want to board because she did not have her hand cream and wanted to go to the pharmacy to buy some. As the plane doors were about to close, the crew had to find a solution quickly. A flight attendant finally handed the passenger her own hand cream. Another time, a lady was behaving rather threateningly with her nail file because she was angry that she had to pay fees for her extra luggage. In these times, the crew members have to talk calmly and patiently with the passenger to understand what is happening in order to offer solutions and release the tension.
Martin explained that he was once about to take the lunch order in the business class when a passenger asked him if he had eaten already. He said no, to which she responded, “then go have your lunch and serve me afterward. I can wait”. That was a kind show of consideration towards the staff.
It's time to land
This behind-the-scenes session with SWISS allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of the concept of hospitality from an airline's perspective. From having gone through the business lounges to the aircraft, passing by briefings and security checks, it is now time to land. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Geneva airport. For your safety and comfort, please keep your seatbelts fastened until the safety signs are turned off. We hope you have enjoyed sharing this journey with us and wish you a pleasant stay.