8 bad lessons brands can learn from airports

When it comes to good business practices, airports do everything wrong. They don’t go the extra mile, make flying fun, or offer help. Businesses, take heed.

I spent a good deal of time on the road last year. Sixty-three trips, to be exact, but who’s counting?

During that time, I had the opportunity to get to know (intimately well) the way our government runs airports.

How should I say this? It sucks.

From people standing around at security while hordes of people wait in line, to not being able to read your tablet in airplane mode during takeoff and landing, it’s a huge mess.

Of course, the more you travel, the easier it is to spot the loopholes. Soon you’re weaseling your way through the airport without so much as a second glance.

I always joke that if a terrorist really wanted to take down another plane, all he’d have to do is achieve status with an airline, buy Global Entry, and spend time in airports to find the loopholes. It’d be expensive and take a significant amount of time, but it’d work.

It’s for this reason Seth Godin’sEleven things organizations can learn from airports” spoke to me.

From his headline, I thought he knew something I didn’t. I read it and realized we wholeheartedly agree. It’s a blog post about the things organizations should not do.

Here is my take on his list:

1. No one is in charge.

I’m writing the “Sex Sells” chapter of my book, “Spin Sucks,” right now. In it I show a lot of good (and bad) case studies about storytelling. One of the things each good story has is a protagonist-a hero, someone you want to believe in.

As it turns out, airports do not have protagonists. There is no one there you want to believe in. If anything, airports are full of antagonists.

2. Employees pass the blame.

Have you ever asked an airport employee to help you with something? I have, and I’ve never gotten an answer. They blame one another or send you to another department or person. No one wants to help. No one wants to embrace the problem. They just point fingers and duck.

3. The food sucks.

I’m a vegetarian, very active (exercise-wise), and I don’t eat junk food. Eating in an airport is a horrid experience—unless you want a beer, soggy fries, and a burger that’s three days old.

O’Hare has tried to heighten the food experience by adding a Rick Bayless restaurant. Every time I walk past it I think, “Boy I’d love to try that.” But the food is such that you can’t eat it and walk, or eat while standing up, and there are only six chairs at the bar. So, I always pass on it.

4. There is a lack of customer experience .

The airlines assume we all want to save money and are willing to sacrifice on convenience, anxiety and time.


If I didn’t have status, I’d be willing to pay for it so I could get through the fast security lines and get on and off the plane first. But no one ever asks. They just assume.

5. Superstition rules.

(See my joke above about terrorists.) If terrorists come through an airport, they’re not going to have bomb-making materials in their shoes or full-sized shampoo bottles. Perhaps the theater of removing all of our clothes and taking apart our luggage is for our benefit, not that of security.

6. No one goes the extra mile.

Last week I was in the Ft. Lauderdale airport. I hate the Ft. Lauderdale airport. There isn’t a Starbucks, and only one restaurant. And, if you’re lucky, you can find an outlet behind the counter. But guess what. If there is a flight leaving from that gate, the staff won’t let you use that outlet. Nor will they let you use an extension cord so you’re not actually behind the counter.

The whole “helping the customer” thing doesn’t even occur to them.

7. There are bad surprises.

I hate surprises of all kinds. I don’t even like good surprises. It’s probably because I like to be in control. But airports don’t have good surprises. They only have bad ones: canceled flights, strip searches, changed gates, seat changes. It’s all bad.

8. There isn’t any fun.

A lot of people complain about LAX, but I don’t mind it. I fly on American Airlines, and the airline has its own little security entrance no one else can use. For about two years, every time I went through LAX a young man met me who was excited and delighted to be at work. He would look at my ID and greet me by name. He’d talk to people who were waiting to get through the line. He was fun to have around. After a few trips, he began to recognize me and we’d chat like old friends.

Two trips ago, he wasn’t there. I inquired about him. He’d been fired. Why? He “delayed passengers,” which I took as, “He was having too much fun with passengers.” Now that security line is as boring as the rest.

I shortened Godin’s list a bit, but the point is there is a lot you can learn from airports—and not just in the U.S.; this is a global problem—about what not to do in business.

What would you add to this list?

Gini Dietrich is founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, Inc. A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

Topics: PR


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