Many dinner table conversations about customer experience will end up talking about the airline industry. It is almost impossible to find a human who does not have an airline ‘story’ – and most of the time the stories are not particularly positive. An industry that appears to be amongst the most glamorous has consistently struggled over the years to deliver consistently good experiences. Some of the biggest customer experience horror stories have been served up by airlines. I have already subjected two heavyweight brands in the industry to my Customer Experience Review process – you can read how British Airways and Ryanair fared should you be interested in doing so!
This review is a first for me – rather than reviewing one brand, I am reviewing two at the same time – I see it almost as a two for the price of one offer!! I am very fortunate to travel a great deal as I help and guide organisations on their customer centric journeys. Last week I had the pleasure of travelling to Kuala Lumpur. Due to a complicated schedule, I ended up travelling out to Kuala Lumpur with Emirates and home again with Etihad. It has given me the perfect opportunity to directly compare two brands delivering a similar experience – the results may (or may not) surprise you.
Before I get started, I must reiterate (as I always do with every review) – this process is one that I have developed personally. It is entirely subjective, based solely on my opinion as a seasoned customer experience specialist having one experience with a brand at a moment in time. However, I am confident that the method I adopt can help both the brands involved and others learn about the significance of the end to end Customer Experience. You can read all of my Customer Experience Reviews here.
|Date Review Conducted||24th September 2014|
|Flight Details||Emirates – Dublin to Kuala Lumpur (via Dubai)Etihad – Kuala Lumpur to Manchester (via Abu Dhabi)|
|CX Review Total Score||Emirates 35/50Etihad 41/50|
|Stars Awarded||Emirates 3.5/5Etihad 4/5|
So let’s get started! In the last two years, I have travelled to the Far East with three different companies – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. I have never been too concerned about the choice of airline – my primary focus has been on selecting the airline that offers the most effective timings to align to my travel plans. Living in the North West of England, my options are more limited than if I were based in London. I have always thought the experiences I have had with the three airlines to be broadly similar, but it is only now that I have made the conscious decision to formally review my interactions with two of them.
Whilst I usually travel out and back with the same airline, due to me having to start my journey in Dublin and finish in Manchester, I ended up going out to Malaysia with Emirates and back to Manchester with Etihad. Many people think that international travel on business is incredibly glamorous – it may be for the lucky few who end up in business class! I am one of the many who must experience the delights of being a second class citizen (as that is how the airlines often make it feel) in good old economy! To give you the context – in both directions I had to experience two 6.5 to 7.5 hour flights with a layover in Dubai (on the way out) and Abu Dhabi (on the way back). All in all I experienced approximately 30 hours of flights over a four day period – more than enough for me to form an opinion.
I often refer to the airline industry as a great example of the importance of differentiation – when every company in one industry uses the same aircraft flying to the same airports, there has to be something that makes them different. The reviews that you are about to read hopefully demonstrate that it is the end to end customer experience that may provide the answer! So who comes out on top – Emirates or Etihad?
Accessibility – CX Review Score Emirates 6/10; Etihad 7/10
In my review process, the definition of accessibility is ‘how easy was it for me to do what I wanted to do’ with the organisation I have chosen to transact with? In this category, Etihad takes a slim advantage over its rival. The question is why? When you consider the customer journey for interacting with an airline, the start of the journey is usually the identification of suitable flights. With a variety of online sources available as well as the airlines own websites themselves, identifying flights to Kuala Lumpur is very easy. Finding and booking flights with Emirates and Etihad is very similar – I would argue so similar, that it almost makes no difference to the experience at all.
In my experience last week, the first advantage went to Emirates. When flying to another country where a stop over is necessary, the length of the stop over can have a significant effect on the overall travel time. In the case of both Dublin and Manchester, the stop over with Etihad is at least two hours longer than the stop over with Etihad. To make matters worse for Etihad, Abu Dhabi airport is currently being reconstructed – the old terminal buildings do not make for a pleasant environment to spend two to four hours of your time. The length of the stop over will have an effect on the perception of the overall experience – especially when there is little difference in price and travel times.
On the next issue, both Emirates and Etihad share a similar problem with other carriers. Neither airline would allow me to print my boarding passes until 24 hours before my flight was due to leave. As a result, on three occasions I had to beg, borrow and steal to arrange for my boarding passes to be printed. I am an individual who does not like to rely on using my phone as a boarding pass – I like the security a paper copy gives me. I am also a person who does not own a portable printer!! Emirates and Etihad are not alone in this – but until the airlines make it easier for passengers to ‘check in’, I will continue to mark them down on the delivery of the experience.
Similarly, ‘baggage drop’ at the airport is another irritation to the overall experience. In both cases, bags are not permitted to be ‘dropped’ in the airport until three hours before the flight is due to depart – and not a second before!! How annoying!! Why not?!! Travelling to different parts of the world takes long enough – why subject poor customers to standing in a queue for an eternity waiting for ground crew to turn on their monitors?! On my return home in Abu Dhabi, I was able to drop off my bag in the centre of Kuala Lumpur…. 5 hours before departure! Emirates offered the same service. So why can it be done in certain circumstances but not others?
Let us move on to the flights themselves. The difference between all four aircraft was so small, that I am tempted to say that the only difference was the colour scheme! However, Etihad gains the advantage over Emirates for some important ‘attention to detail’ points. Firstly the entertainment system – both airlines have them – the entertainment on them is almost identical. The difference I experienced was in the quality of the screens. The Emirates screens were not particularly well defined and very dark – this made it difficult to watch movies and TV programmes. I was fortunate to have empty seats either side of me on both my outbound flights – all the screens were the same. The Etihad screens were much clearer and well defined. Additionally, the Emirates headphones were awful – the fact they were uncomfortable was minor – the fact that four out of five headphones I tried to use did not work properly was major. The headphones on Etihad were a class above – far more comfortable and worked perfectly – it made for a much more enjoyable entertainment experience.
Everything else I experienced was too similar to be any different – from the meals, to seat comfort to disembarkation etc. However, on both of my Emirates flights, I was seated in a row with a broken table – as I have already stated – due to being on aircraft that were half full, this was not an issue. What would have happened if the aircraft had have been full? I do not expect to have anything being broken, damaged or not working on a flight – it surprised me to experience this on two separate flights with Emirates.
So in summary, both airlines have room for improvement in a number of areas when it comes to making the experience as accessible as possible – 6 and 7 out of 10 are low scores for brands of this calibre. However, in my opinion, the Etihad experience shades it – at least everything worked as expected!!
Range/Choice – CX Review Score Emirates 7/10; Etihad 8/10
I thought it would be very difficult to find any differentiation between the two airlines when it came to range and choice. Both have the same ‘classes’ of travel; the same offers; the same sort of loyalty programmes. As I have already said, they both fly the same routes using the same planes using the same airports. Perhaps I am being harsh on Emirates here – they have a more modern fleet than Etihad with the world’s largest stock of the new A380 superjumbo aircraft – but I was a passenger who could not benefit from the double decker plane on the routes I needed to travel.
The reason why Etihad comes out on top here is because the experience they offer recognises the importance of giving customers the option to have flexibility. Travel plans often change – sometimes well ahead of travelling – often at short notice. The peace of mind that we can get from purchasing flexible tickets is reassuring. Emirates do not offer flexible options (at least I could not find them!) – Etihad do – it puts them significantly ahead in this category in my opinion. I have noticed more airlines going this way – Easyjet for example now offer flexible tickets that enable customers to change their flights up to two hours before departure. Emirates need to emulate this if they are to keep pace with their rivals.
People – CX Review Score Emirates 7/10; Etihad 9/10
It is with their people that I personally recognised the greatest difference in my experiences with the two airlines. I base this statement on having interacted with four different crews on four flights. Emirates have always been heralded for their ‘world class’ customer service. In fact both airlines during their ‘in flight’ announcements mention the fact that they are ‘award winning’. From the minute I entered the cabin, I noticed a difference between the crews of the two airlines.
Emirates cabin crew are very well presented. With not a hair out of place, they look as though they have walked straight out of a catalogue. However not only do their uniforms look well starched, so do their smiles. Although they said all the right things – ‘Welcome to Emirates Mr Golding’ etc.., it very much felt to me as though it was being said through clenched teeth. In almost 15 hours of flying with Emirates crew, I did not see a lot of smiling going on. They just felt indifferent to my presence – as though they were not that bothered. They were not rude or impolite, just indifferent. I will say that the male crew seemed more indifferent than the female – I am not sure why, but it was evident to me. They left me feeling as though I should not ask them anything; I shouldn’t disturb them from their tasks – not really what I expected from Emirates.
Etihad felt very different. The crew said the same things as Emirates – the BIG difference is that they said it as though they meant it. With warm smiles always present, they glided around the cabin constantly looking to see if passengers needed help. I actually felt more relaxed than on my Emirates flights – it was the crew that made me feel that way. On my fourth flight – my final leg with Etihad, I had the pleasure of being looked after by two lovely crew hailing from Portugal. Maria and Martha were ever smiling, kind, courteous and very helpful.
As can sometimes happen, I was among the last passengers to be served their meal on this particular flight. Being tired and grouchy, I expressed my distinct displeasure to Martha. I must admit, I was a little rude – something I imagine cabin crew have to face on a regular basis. What happened next exceeded my expectation. Having told Martha that I would take the option I did not want (as I had no choice!), Maria appeared by my side. ‘We are so sorry that this has happened sir’, she said. ‘We have had a look at the crew meals and I would be delighted if you would have the meal that has been secured for me’. I was touched – Maria and Martha had held counsel in the galley, and decided that even though the passenger had been a grouch, it was still their role to try to make me happy. This highlighted for me the significant difference in the way I experienced the Emirates and Etihad crews. As readers of my blogs know, the importance in people delivering empathetic experiences must never be underestimated – Etihad’s people in my experience were a cut above Emirates.
Value – CX Review Score Emirates 7/10; Etihad 8/10
When it coms to value, there is little to choose between the two airlines – the cost of a return ticket to Kuala Lumpur is as low as £500 – not a lot of money when you consider the distances involved. However, Etihad’s ability to offer a variety of fares based on Customers requirements for flexibility gives it the edge again over Emirates.
How did it make me feel? Review Score Emirates 8/10; Etihad 9/10
Prior to thinking about conducting reviews of both airlines, I assumed that I would attribute the same score to both when it came to the way interacting with them made me feel. I did not think that there would be significant enough differences to differentiate between the two. I was wrong.The Etihad experience just felt better to me – almost entirely down to the attitude and behaviour of their people. It was a warmer, friendlier more relaxing experience – I can still recall members of the crew from both Etihad flights – I cannot recall any crew member from my Emirates flights. In my experience, the difference between the two airlines is their people and as a result, Etihad wins the emotional component of the experience.
Would I use Emirates and Etihad again? YES and YES
If you have made it this far, you will have noticed that the Etihad experience has surpassed that of Emirates. Four flights spread over a few days – whilst both experiences were good, Etihad’s was better. As they so often are, people have proven to be the biggest differentiator of them all – and in my experiences, Etihad’s people are delivering a better, more empathetic experience than those of Emirates.
In all likelihood, I will use both Emirates and Etihad again – the key is that if I have the choice to use either – my primary choice would be to use Etihad – this is the most important thing. In an industry were differentiation is so difficult and where choice is increasing, it is often fine margins that will determine the advocacy of your customers. If Emirates want to compete for my business, the next time I board one of their aircraft, the crew need to convince me that they are genuinely enjoying what they do and then sit me at a seat where everything works!
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