Several months ago a friend asked me to create a framework for a major airline’s Entertainment Desk to service Los Angeles-based movie studios and television networks. I had a few ideas – but first the background:

Transcon: The JFK<>LAX market is the most important air market in North America. Five airlines carry >11,000 passengers between these cities each day and host celebrities, bankers, tourists and high net worth travelers on sixty-four non-stop departures (thirty-two per airport). American dominates the market with the largest aircraft and highest frequency. They operate ageing twin-aisle 767-200’s with a three-class configuration and International Flagship Service. United caters to the same crowd and operates with more efficient three-class 757’s, while Delta, Jetblue and Virgin America offer two cabins on a mix of 737’s/A320’s.

Historically movie studio’s and other entertainment customers selected American or United as their primary carrier in this market since creative talent and executives are allowed to fly in the forward cabin (why pick a two-class aircraft when three-class is offered?) These corporate customers routinely achieved >90% share in the transcon market. More recently, Delta enhanced their two-class product to include a lie-flat International business-class seat and increased to seven daily frequencies while United pulled back to six. This competitive action has re-ordered the Transcon marketplace and Studio travel managers tell me that travelers prefer Delta’s Premium cabin to AA’s out-dated 767’s and United 757’s.

Delta’s progress may slow soon. United is rolling out a new product now, while American announced new three-class A321’s will roll out in January 2014, to replace their current product. This upgrade includes lie-flat seats in first and business-class. JetBlue also jumped-in and plans to launch A321 service in 2Q ’14, that will include private pods in first-class. Before it’s even started, 2014 is shaping up to be a disruptive year for the Transcon market.

The Desk: Superior airlines also compete on the ground and offer services tailored to their best customers. The Entertainment Desk is dedicated to a very specific group of clients, and should make a market in first-class seats between New York, London, Miami, and Los Angeles or offer access to private jets where feasible. The desk exists to expedite difficult and unusual requests. The Entertainment Manager facilitates requests to seat Talent, their Agents, Studio or Network Management, Publicists and others with the Talent – or create a plausible denial when discretion requires it. This function is not a discount mechanism to clear waitlists and upgrades – Airlines must offer a high-touch, guaranteed service.

Winning airlines create hope during every crisis – airlines should move mountains to support their customers. Clients should believe their Airline’s Entertainment Team will do everything possible to fix the problem or propose alternatives that will improve it materially. This group is not motivated by money or cost – service matters. The George Lucas expression – “do or do not, there is no try” applies. An Entertainment Desk is an airline’s service ER. Employees must be able to reach into a PNR to grab a torn artery – when the Entertainment Desk calls premium services at LAX, JFK, MIA or LHR, the response should not be, “Who is this?” Rather, “What can I do for you RIGHT NOW?”

Examples: Airline’s will solve requests like this on a daily basis: NBC called since Alec Baldwin’s Assistant booked late and needs the seat right next to him for his publicist or agent. The Entertainment team will call Sony, or Paramount or Fox, or AMEX or the owner of that seat to get it done – or suggest moving both of them to a pair of seats that are available. Great airlines block First-class in the transcon market one week each May to allow studios to grab space to attend the “Upfronts.” They empower their team. No one should recite policies designed for 99% of the 250K travelers you handle every day. Accept that these are special customers and start from that assumption. The team should be “accessible” 24/7 via cell and have GDS access from home. They’ll only receive 10-15 emergency, after-hours, calls per year… but it’s a gesture that sets winning airlines apart from their peers.

The Entertainment Manager must have an exceptional relationship with the airline’s premium service managers in LA, New York, London, Miami and Nashville, and should be known across your system and alliance – and that means they need to be included in global premium service meetings and updates when you have them. This person must be available at all times and have a back-up who can assign seats or clear space. Overbooking capabilities are recommended.

Entertainment Managers must be quick to challenge requests and propose alternatives when operational hurdles prevent the studio request from being granted as requested. A “customer focused” attitude should be real; once a carrier earns a customer’s trust and loyalty they will choose that vendor every time. In those rare cases when the carrier “burns” their customer – the most senior executive available should issue a mea culpa, in-person, and a offer a range of options to fix whatever it is they didn’t solve three days earlier.

Additional examples to work through now: On one flight the President of a network was removed to accommodate a Federal Air Marshal, while two subordinates, both top-tier frequent flyers were left on the flight. Revenue Management based their decision on the customer’s lack of a frequent flyer number. The customer didn’t have one for two reasons: 1. Security – to maintain anonymity; 2. She was authorized to fly private and rarely flew commercial  (the plane was not available that day). In this case the General Manager intervened and found a seat, but you can see how an airline’s policies are not designed around premium travelers in marginal cases. Airlines service customers who fly to NY Commercially, then to Miami by private jet, before they will discover that their MIA->LAX segment was cancelled because they no-showed the LGA->MIA flight. Great airlines step-up to fix it when a VIP is standing at the ticket-counter and flights are oversold all day.

This desk also makes “meet and greets” happen (not ‘space available’, they make it happen) and they treat airport assistance companies as valued partners. Great airlines speak in guarantees. This is hard for commercial airline managers to do, but it’s necessary to win. Great airlines are discrete – they don’t tolerate employees who call TMZ or tip-off the paparrazi. This desk can call flight ops and ask the Chief Pilot to introduce himself to the guest in 3A and to ask the VIP passenger if there’s anything they need. This desk says, “Sure, I’ll approve your oversize, outrageous pet in first-class (at the window), as long as the handler is seated next to it” No discount…this isn’t a discount desk – service focused. This person will need LHR to clear a closet in First Class on a 777 to accommodate the CEO’s spouse’s Cello. And you will need authority to offer 150,000 miles for an apology without advance approval.

Finally, I recommend a $100,000 TAC budget to invite agents and managers to take one or two trips annually to London or New York (and a thorough understanding of the Foreign Corrupt Services Act to keep you out of trouble). When offered a chance to show off your product – do. This isn’t a discount crowd, so treat them accordingly.

There’s more, but airlines that empower their teams with “authority and resources” to do anything the FAA, TSA, DOJ, and the DOT allow, to take care of their best customers, will have unlimited success.

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