To Fly High, Focus on Customers…Not Competitors

Next week marks the 13th anniversary of an “Open Skies” agreement between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (click HERE). Since it was signed in 2002, Etihad and Emirates, two UAE based carriers, have made successful expansions into the US market by focusing on service quality and the customer experience.

I recently flew Etihad Airlines, the state-owned carrier that has grown like a weed since it was founded in 2003. Despite the inherent discomfort of spending 14+ hours in a metal tube flying at 500+ mph at 37,000 feet over the surface of the earth, I actually enjoyed the experience! The service was great, the food delicious, the entertainment system robust, and the WIFI efficient. (Click HERE for more about Etihad’s service).  I flew Emirates earlier this year and had a similar experience.


When I contrast these experiences with those I’ve had flying US carriers internationally, the difference is enormous: seating is not as comfortable, the food of lesser quality, and the service far less accommodating.   The entertainment systems are less capable, the staff is generally less friendly, and the equipment is definitively older.  Simply put, the offering is not nearly as good.

As a voracious consumer of international air travel services, I vote with my feet and choose the best offering available for the price.  I’m thrilled to have Emirates and Etihad as options.  As a student of service companies, I had expected the US airlines would improve their long haul offerings.  Sadly, they appear more concerned with competitors than customers.  While they’ve marginally improved, American, Delta, and United are also asking the US government to renegotiate the Open Skies agreement (click HERE).

Airline executives from the US carriers recently submitted a 55-page document to Congress (not released to the public) claiming the three main Persian Gulf carriers (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar) are competing unfairly through government subsidies. Delta CEO Richard Anderson noted he spent two years studying the Gulf carriers’ financial statements and had indisputable evidence of tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, escalating tensions between executives from the United States and the Gulf Carriers.   But don’t many nations support their airlines?  In a position paper, Emirates actually highlights the subsidies received by dozens of carriers from dozens of nations (click HERE).  Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker commented “Mr. Anderson should be doing his job and improving and competing with us instead of crying wolf for his shortcomings in the way his airline is run” (click HERE).

What if Delta’s Anderson had spent two years focused on customers instead of his competitors?  In an interview with Matt Winkler, Emirates Chairman Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum offered simple yet powerful advice to his American competitors: “Improve your service, offer the best to the passenger, and people will fly with you”(click HERE).

To fly high, focus on your customers, not competitors.