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Own the Experience: Virgin America Has A Terminal Illness


This past Super Bowl Sunday, I was scheduled to fly nonstop from Boston to San Francisco. I would be missing the traditional couch parties, but I thought I had found a pretty good (and potentially fun) alternative — watching the game at 30,000 feet, awash in the purple lighting of perennially cool Virgin America. Despite my timing everything perfectly, the flight was delayed. That’s okay, I thought, there will be a bar or Chili’s or someplace to watch at Boston Logan.

And so began a perfect demonstration of how a brand as cool as Virgin America can still trip up when it comes to owning the customer experience.

Because of its archaic (and baffling) design, Logan Terminal B is carved up into separate little enclaves for different airlines, each with its own security. It’s safe to say that Virgin America got the short end of the stick. While the check-in counter is consistent with Virgin’s branding — the touch screens and lights and music — the gate itself is best described as post-apocalyptic. Airstrips in Siberia are better serviced. There was: A coffee cart, a bathroom, and one TV. The TV that would save the Super Bowl.

Or not.

It wasn’t playing the Super Bowl, so I asked about changing it. “We don’t control that TV, Massport does,” I was told in a rather brusque Boston accent by the gate attendant — rather anomalous compared to Virgin’s usual accommodating, light-hearted service. I suddenly found myself trying to explain that people like to watch the Super Bowl; something I wouldn’t have expected myself doing until I met my first martian. Still, I decided to be assertive. I tweeted at Virgin America. I called Massport’s service line and pleaded with the operator. “Sorry sir, we cannot change the TV channel, Massport has very lucrative contracts with CNN, and we dare not change the channel,” she said.

Yes, I heard those words.

I decided to leave the gate area, and a Legal Seafood — outside of security — saved the day. Of course, when I got back to the gate to board my flight, the sole TV was playing the Super Bowl. Someone had listened. But it got me thinking about how this whole experience was affecting my impression of Virgin America’s brand.

What customer touchpoints do airlines have control of? Websites, phone lines, check-in desks, gate desks, and the flights themselves. They’re the easy ones. And then it starts getting harder. Security, obviously, belongs to the touchy-feely TSA. Traditionally, airports and their supporting terminals are operated by transportation authorities like sunny Massport or other private management companies.

More and more, however, airlines with strong brands have looked to exert more influence over the experience customers receive while waiting to board their flights.

JetBlue led the way with their investment in infamously grimey JFK, and similarly brand-minded Virgin America followed that lead when they worked with SFO to create Terminal 2. If you’ve flown from either of these terminals, you can’t help but associate your elevated experience with the airlines themselves — whilst you enjoy a little yoga, massage, wine, cheese, and of course, Pinkberry.

What these brands have done is taken a customer touchpoint that was traditionally not within their control — and they decided to own it. They didn’t care about reasons (which are really just excuses). Instead, they committed themselves to ending customer misery — and further unifying an end-to-end, positive customer experience. It’s not unlike what Apple did when it decided to open up its own stores. A computer company owning retail stores? The move was widely derided at the time. But it made complete sense — Apple did what they needed to do to own their customer experience.

Once a company decides to start down this path, though, to not be consistent can be fatal: You set expectations for the experience, and then you break them. For example, it’s largely SFO Terminal 2’s fault for producing my revulsion toward Logan’s Terminal B. They are polar opposites — and though I understand there may be both bureaucratic and financial limitations to upgrading every space Virgin flies out of… they need to realize that they’ve built an expectation of their customer experience — and then failed to deliver on it. They flawlessly managed the entire customer journey in San Francisco. And then left a massive hole (masshole) in the middle in Boston.

It’s up to companies to understand their customer’s journeys. And then own those journeys. Not just part of them. Not just the easy bits. Not just the part that have traditionally been “theirs”. All of them. Creating great experiences is a responsibility — and ultimately, the reasons why you didn’t will just be viewed as excuses in your customers’ minds.

Photo credit: Angelo DeSantis