03 December 2009

What makes a great airline?

As I reminisce the Amsterdam trip of 1999, and the Europe trip (centered around Germany) just a month ago, I have some thoughts worth reminiscing over, and it's something I must remember as I try to carry the proper attitude of a flight attendant into Sarah.

"Come fly the airline that's uniting the world.
Come fly the friendly skies."
- United Airlines slogan, early 1990s

When others see this photo, they see a United 777 taking off from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. But to me, it means more - the end of the worst international trip of my life, and the return of sanity. After putting up with the ethnic thugs of Amsterdam for a week, the mere sight of a United tail at the airport was a relief. I vastly preferred sitting in that plane, listening to some Melissa Etheridge, being served by a top-notch crew in a state-of-the-art plane, and knowing that I would never, ever have to deal with the Surinamese barbarians around Damrak ever again.

And it wasn't just this trip. Throughout the 1990s, United was my strongly preferred airline. It partly had to do with a few other key travel memories (for example, flying to Mariah Carey in New York, AND her huge fan base in Seoul, all on United, in 1994), but just as important was knowing that I was flying on an airline well known for quality service, professionalism, and a spirit of innovation. I was well aware of United being involved with the Boeing 777 development program, in particular, and when the 777 did come online, I made sure to get on one for my first Atlantic crossing. Flying United was more than about frequent flier miles; for me, it was a decision about pride and feeling good as well.

Unfortunately, the Amsterdam trip would be the last time I would truly get that proud feeling by flying United. The mismanagement since then, including the bankruptcy, has truly hammered the airline, and it will take a long time of consistently good management decisions before the glory is ever restored.

"There's no better way to fly."
- Lufthansa slogan 

However, I am happy to know that I have gotten that proud feeling back. The trip to Germany a month and a half ago was on Lufthansa, on an Airbus A340-600 like this. This was my first-ever journey on Lufthansa, and while Lufthansa is nowhere as posh as some of the top-notch airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, or Asiana (my recent favorite), its level of professionalism is second to none. The Germanic obsession with order and professionalism carries straight into Lufthansa, its equipment, and its crew. The inflight announcements are designed so that I know exactly what to expect, when I land in Munich and try to enter Germany, or when I am coming back to Los Angeles. (Thanks, in particular, for letting me know that if I have a German name with an umlaut over a vowel, I must delete the umlaut and add an extra E after the vowel in question, otherwise the US immigration can't process my I-94 or I-94W.)

Lufthansa crew are also extremely well-trained and professional. Again, they are not as friendly as the Asian crews, but they know what they're doing VERY WELL. And as for the airline itself, it is a pioneer - it is well associated with the Boeing 737, the upcoming Boeing 747-8, and the Airbus A340 series - and its sound management and healthy balance sheets have enabled it to continually invest and innovate, including the expansion of Miles & More frequent flier program, investments in Swiss Air Lines, Austrian Airlines, and JetBlue Airways, and keeping the entire Star Alliance well managed. Choosing to fly an airline of this high caliber makes me feel good, and I surely felt good aboard Lufthansa. In fact, I had never felt so good about my airline choice since those United 777s of the 1990s. (Not even the posh Asiana service to Korea and China could quite bring back that proud feeling...)

I still hold the airline industry in high regard, considering its potential to bring different peoples and cultures together for a more harmonious world. And I know a quality airline when I see it. Most importantly, a quality airline can inspire a great sense of pride, both in customers and in employees. This is a feeling that I must carry into Sarah, as I certainly want her to be the kind of flight attendant that United needs in order to be that quality airline again. And for that matter, having this sense will help myself whenever I am sending notes of compliments, suggestions, or complaints to United, Lufthansa, or any other airline that I fly on.

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