Executives at Hawaiian Airlines believe the carrier has discovered the right formula to execute an onboard experience that garners high praise from customers while preserving the carrier’s balance sheet.
The airline during late 2012 carried out a significant revamp of its onboard service in the economy cabin on its transpacific flights to North America, which is rare as the vast majority of passenger experience upgrades are geared towards higher-yielding premium customers.
“Unlike many competitors our big service announcement this year (2012) was not about a lie-flat seat, it was not about turn-down service. It was about delivering a better product to our guests in the economy cabin,” Hawaiian vice-president of marketing Avi Mannis told investors in late 2012. The carrier “set out to rewrite inflight service from scratch, and started with a complete blank sheet of paper because we did not want to continue to add on to what had evolved as our service over the last decade”.
The service is centred around offering complimentary meals and cocktails in the coach cabin during regular meal times, which is unheard of in the US domestic market. But as a means to keep costs in check the meals are not offered on red-eye flights “when people just want to sleep”, said Mannis. On morning flights to the continental US Hawaiian offers a complimentary breakfast box and a snack service just before landing that includes a bag of Maui potato chips and a cocktail featuring Koloa rum from the island of Kauai.
Complimentary meals on Hawaiian’s afternoon service to and from the US include an entree, desert, snack and a complimentary glass of red or white wine. Mannis explained that Hawaiian deliberately opted for a more elaborate meal on those flights “because this is when people are returning home for the most part. This is their last impression of Hawaiian Airlines and we wanted to leave them with a really ‘wow’ impression”.
After completing significant research to build its new economy class experience Hawaiian concluded the “quantitative benefits that people associate with inflight meal service far outweigh the cost of delivering it, and for us it is a really powerful differentiator especially in a market place in which we are the only carrier doing it”, Mannis remarked. “One of the things we find is that by giving our employees the ability to offer a meal to a guest – it sort of engineers a hospitable interaction between host and guest.”
Another more subtle way Hawaiian is improving the host-guest interaction is its approach to maneuvering service carts. Instead using the usual method of flight attendants travelling up and down the aisles with separate food and beverage carts, Hawaiian uses six carts evenly spaced on the two aisles of its widebody jets that contain both food and beverages. Each cart and flight attendant is assigned a specific zone of the cabin, serves the meal to guests, and once the crew member reaches the end of the zone, he or she returns to the beginning to start offering refills or clear trays. “The guests don’t really notice this,” Mannis remarked. But the customer compliments Hawaiian has received since introducing the new onboard service in the economy cabin are sounding much more like those offered by first class passengers, with the accolades mentioning flight attendants by name. “We think that means we’ve succeeded in creating a more intimate host-guest experience,” he stated.
Hawaiian’s new cart service approach, “reinforces the point that thoughtful customer service design does not have to drive costs”, concluded Mannis.
But offering complimentary meals in the economy cabin did come at a cost, which meant Hawaiian needed to find ways to offset the expense. “We’re spending more on our dinner service now than we did before but we’re spending a little bit less on the rest of the service,” explained Mannis. The result is less spend on red-eye flights where Hawaiian only offers meals for purchase and the removal of pillows and blankets on day flights. Now pillows and blankets are offered for sale on daylight services, and have been designed as “something the passenger wants to take off the plane and use later”.
Hawaiian also also been aggressive with respect to how it sources and purchases items featured in the new economy service. “We’ve been able to source some of those elements at extremely attractive costs,” said Mannis. Local vendors such as Koloa also recognise the marketing opportunities afforded to them when their products are served on Hawaiian’s flights, he explained.
Another tactic to keep costs in check is Hawaiian’s decision not too offer numerous choices for the complimentary meals featured in its economy class. “Choice is something that we offer people but they have to pay for it. That allows us to offer this quality service without driving our costs,” according to Mannis.
Hawaiian now seems to be reaping rewards from revamping its approach to onboard service in its economy cabin. After the service was introduced Mannis said Hawaiian marked a milestone when its consumer affairs department for the first time in the carrier’s history received more compliments on inflight service than complaints. “I think that says something about the power of good service design,” he concluded.
(Photo above and main is courtesy of AirTeamImages.)