Is Jetstar’s new electronic self-service an improved service or anti service?

“Dealing with humans to cost extra as Jetstar goes self-service”. So claimed The Australian on May 25th 2011.

Jetstar is going ‘self-service’ and is now going to charge for any form of human contact we have with them. What’s more, Jetstar apparently now earns more money from ‘ancillary revenues’ (check in, baggage and everything else they can persuade us to pay for) than they do from fares, which is… very revealing.

Is this the future of low cost airline services?  Are we soon to hear of Jetstar charging customers to use their toilets, as Ryanair in the UK was rumoured to be proposing in the UK in 2009 (at the time said to have been a PR stunt) but much discussed in the UK press since. At the time of writing, it’s not possible to tell if Ryanair has implemented this policy.

And what does this say about the Jetstar brand? Jetstar calls it electronic self-service. I call it anti-service.

We’re getting used to increasing automation in all fields of life, as what we used to think of as service businesses (banks, airlines, travel companies) increasingly make it harder and harder (or just plain frustrating) to get through to a real person, all the while telling us that they are doing this in the name of improved service.

You’d have to be blind not to notice the pressures on airlines to cut costs. I am not sure that banks have the same clarity of argument as they trim, pare and automate. But let’s at least recognise the pressures.

Automation of service is, of course, neither new nor all bad. Banks have pretty much persuaded us that online banking is an improvement on telephone banking which was, in turn, an improvement on branch banking. And there are some services, like getting an overseas travel visa to the US via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), where the online experience is so superior (faster, less bureaucratic, easier) that human contact could now only make the service poorer.

Some online retailers (Amazon and iTunes come to mind) do it well. And they’ve convinced us that we’re not losing anything by dealing with them.

And DIY check outs in supermarkets?  I think the jury is out. And to prove it, retailers seem to be employing as many people to ‘educate’ us through DIY as they do on manned check outs.  I know what I’d rather do.

And then there are the baddies. Top of that list has to be the curse of IVR (interactive voice recognition). The companies that support such ‘services’ cannot possibly believe that what they do makes anyone feel better about their business or their brand. So let’s not delude ourselves that it’s service.  Try telling someone that ‘your call is important’ when they’ve been on hold for 25 minutes. I don’t think so.

And so to airlines.

I recently took a trip to the US. Excellent cheap fare to start with. Hurrah. It was United, by the way. At almost every point of contact, I was offered the opportunity to pay more for  … well, less inconvenience, really.

At the check in: did I want to upgrade to premium economy for $132 for an extra 5 inches leg room and a seat nearer the front of the plane?  Yes, I’d have that. Less hassle getting off the plane and into the very long immigration queue.

On my return flight from Austin to LA, would I like to pay $37 to join the premium security queue and thus avoid the (standard) long security queue? As I considered this option, at my self-service check-in screen, of course, a member of staff looked in my direction and so I asked if it was worth it?  “No, not right now” she said, helpfully “but this morning, you’d have been mad not to, as the line took 90 minutes to get through and people were missing flights right, left and centre”.

When checking in (online, of course) to come back to Australia, I took up the offer to upgrade to premium economy and also paid for the premium security line, thinking that LA airport would be a nightmare of queues and hostile staff and stressed travelers (just like me), as it had been on arrival. As it happened, I coughed up $37 for nothing, as there was no premium security line and, as luck would have it (hurrah) there were no queues.  But I had paid $37 for nothing (boo). And no-one to go to get my money back, either.

Even their staff are embarrassed by how little service they supply. On my connecting flight to Austin, I couldn’t even pay for food as there was none (though I could see it being offered in ‘first class’). The flight attendant, apologising profusely, encouraged me to write and complain to the airline (and happily supplied me with the email address to do so).

Is this where Jetstar is heading?

“We’ll make the cost of that very transparent, the way we did with meals and in-flight entertainment” said Jetstar group executive Bruce Buchanan.  Well, I reckon that’s the least they can do.

I understand what they are doing to increase self-service and reduce their costs. But I think the impact on their brand will be significant.

As the presence of real people recedes and our contact with people in airlines (and banks and whatever else) reduces, their brands will become less about service and only about price.  It will be about the low cost fare which will induce a very short term hurrah and the numerous additional costs we pay to make the experience of air travel bearable.

They call it electronic self-service. It’s certainly electronic and it’s certainly self-driven, in that it’s me that’s doing all of the work. But is it service? I call it anti-service.

The truth is, it’s only improved service as we are relying on the only person who we can trust to get things right – ourselves. Not the bank. And certainly not the airline.

And, of course it is cyclical.  What does Jetstar do when someone inevitably comes along with an interesting offer that is service-based? Think again is what they will have to do.

At this rate, the low cost airlines would be as well saving themselves a fortune by painting their airlines the proposed cigarette-packet olive green, dressing their staff in grey overalls and giving up the ghost of pretending to offer service.

It will all come down to price anyway and flying to Melbourne will be like taking the next local bus. It has a price but you have no engagement with the company behind the service.

I just hope I can still afford to fly Qantas.

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