In the madcap world created by author P.G. Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster’s snappy, debonair lifestyle was only possible because of the intuitive skills of his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. Whether the task at hand involved packing the proper tweeds and cravat for a weekend at a friend’s castle or escaping gracefully from an unplanned betrothal, Jeeves accomplished the task smoothly, efficiently and with precisely the proper amount of élan. Without a doubt, today’s best travel perk may be a Jeeves archetype that encompasses the combined talents of butler, magician and grandmother: the airline concierge.
An outgrowth of strategic efforts to offset the escalating irritation and ordeal surrounding air travel, concierge services successfully made the leap from hotels to airlines. Personalizing the flight experience is part of a growing service management paradigm that seeks to up the positive qualitative elements customers ascribe to travel — how was the experience made pleasurable, what about the experience met or exceeded expectations, and did passengers come away with the perception they were made to feel special?
In 2008, Air New Zealand introduced its International Airline Concierge service, available on selected flights between Auckland and Los Angeles to all passengers, regardless of cabin level. The result of feedback from Air New Zealand cabin crew and passengers, the concierge program became a point of honor: Much like a traditional concierge service, concierge team members help passengers simplify things by organizing transfers, acting as disrupt managers, escorting passengers to and from the aircraft, locating and securing meeting space, discussing wine pairings and providing inside tips on restaurants or other settings designed to impress important clients.
The scope of services offered and the degree to which they’re personalized varies widely among airlines. Iberia Airlines’ premium passengers enjoy an exclusive check-in area; a fast track at security; VIP lounge access; priority boarding; luxury car service to and from certain airports in Spain, Santiago de Chile, Mexico, Buenos Aires and São Paolo; and free parking for up to a week at the VIP areas at Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. Some services, such as the newly introduced Family Pass — a service for families traveling with children, designed to speed their passage through Madrid-Barajas airport — are available at an additional fee.
“We think we cover what our customers need in terms of concierge services,” says Francisca Patilla, product design manager in charge of product offering at Iberia, “but we are monitoring constantly and carefully through surveys any new needs they could have — with special attention to our premium passengers — to make sure the offerings match their needs.”
Modern concierge service in all of its various incarnations can be traced to medieval France, where castles came equipped with a staffer known as the Keeper of the Candles, or Comte desCierges. Duties of what developed into a coveted position included looking after noble guests and presumably making sure even the most obscure royal whim was discreetly fulfilled. Hundreds of years later, in 19th-century Paris, apartment building personnel included an individual who lived on the property and provided a variety of services that benefited the lives of those who dwelled there. It was also in France — in 1929 — that the exclusive, international association of hotel concierges known as Les Clefs d’Or was created. Today, a distinctive lapel pin in the form of crossed golden keys identifies its members.
As corporate members of Les Clefs d’Or, Air Canada’s concierges rank as Professional Affiliate members of the organization, giving them access to thousands of hotel concierges in 32 countries — a big advantage when it comes to accessing accurate, inside information about far-flung destinations. Since 1995, Air Canada’s premium customers have had access to more than 156 concierges in more than 24 airports worldwide, providing them with a multitude of personal services that include being accompanied through check-in and security and then escorted to a Maple Leaf Lounge and on to their seat. Concierges liaise with in-flight crew to make certain the needs and preferences of Super Elite and Executive First passengers are addressed. Upon reaching their destination, a concierge will be waiting at the gate to smooth the arrival process.
“We pride ourselves in offering a discreet and seamless travel experience, focusing on the little details that make a big difference,” explains Deborah-Ann De Souza, director, premium and concierge product worldwide for Air Canada, who has been with the concierge service since its inception. “We appreciate our customers’ loyalty. Over the years we really get to know them well, and when they tell us we are part of the family, they mean it. We’ve even staged marriage proposals and offered gentle reminders of important anniversaries.”
While staples include dining and hotel assistance, transfer and disrupt service and expedited check-in and immigration navigation, the scope of concierge services offered runs a tremendously wide gamut. Qatar Airways dedicated an entire terminal to premium-class passengers, complete with spa treatments, fine dining, secretarial services and concierge seated check-in. The concierge staff at Virgin Atlantic pamper premium passengers arriving at selected airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, with chauffeur-driven car service or limo-bike motorcycles. They also receive personal attention in Heathrow’s Upper Class Wing that includes dedicated check-in, a prioritized and exclusive security channel and access to the award-winning Clubhouse and Revivals lounges — welcoming passengers with access to a private area with refreshing showers and providing them with a delicious, hot, cooked breakfast before they set off to meet their chauffeur.
The Global Services extended by United to its top-tier customers includes numerous perks designed to provide as seamless a process as possible — described by Jeff Foland, president of MileagePlus Holdings, as “high-touch, high-level special treatment.” Hawaiian Airlines’ ground concierge staff offers arrival flower leis and sightseeing recommendations, while Swiss International Air Lines offers a Fly Rail service from its U.S. gateways for flights bound to either Zürich or Geneva, allowing passengers to negotiate their flight and immigration without having to deal with their luggage.
“Passengers can check their luggage in with us and pick it up at a railway station once they’re in Switzerland,” explains Jacqueline Pash, head of corporate communications and public relations, USA. “There are over 75 participating stations throughout Switzerland. As an example, if you’re flying from Chicago to Switzerland and have a ski trip planned to St. Moritz, you can check your bags through directly to the St. Mortiz rail station and collect them there.”
Pleasure may, however, come at an additional price. American Airlines expanded its Five Star Service to provide customers the option of purchasing one-on-one personalized travel assistance at 14 airports worldwide. What you get is a choice of arrival, departure or connection assistance; access to Admirals Club lounges; car service coordination; accelerated security procedures; preboarding and rebooking assistance; and help with luggage, customs and immigration. American also introduced its Flagship Check-in program, complimentary for Five Star Service customers and other select, high-value passengers at certain airports.
“Flagship Check-in launched in Los Angeles in 2011, followed by Miami in 2012,” says Jim Moses, American’s managing director, premium services. “Flagship Check-in is an exclusive check-in facility and service available at MIA and LAX that offers a discreet and expedited check-in experience for American’s high-value customers. The product features a private facility staffed by customer service representatives who can personally assist with customers’ individual travel requirements, including check-in and baggage assistance, seat or itinerary changes and connecting flight information. American maintains its commitment to providing a modern customer experience with a distinct focus on delivering what high-value customers expect most — world-class products and services. To attract those high-value customers, we remain keenly focused on finding new ways to enrich the travel experience.”
At Lufthansa, Christina Semmel, Lufthansa’s manager of corporate communications, North America, explains airline management recognizes premium passengers most often desire quiet time and space while they await their flight. Having someone on hand to take care of travel details while you enjoy your Pinot Grigio can amplify the more enjoyable aspects of those preboarding moments.
“Simplicity is in great demand,” adds Semmel. “Every premium passenger on Lufthansa has a personal assistant to manage check-in, make reservations and provide numerous other services so that they are able to relax and enjoy the lounge while waiting for their flight.”
Personalizing travel seems to be key to meeting those elusive, qualitative markers essential to customer satisfaction and loyalty. Sometimes that means outsourcing. British Airways joined forces with the acclaimed private concierge service Quintessentially Lifestyle, which provides premium passengers with exclusive, complimentary concierge service at both Heathrow and New York’s JFK airports. The service begins within 14 days of departure; with offices in 60 countries worldwide, concierge staff members have access to detailed destination information and a network of travel-related services and providers that meet the needs of passengers.
Whether a skilled concierge can pull a rabbit out of a hat on demand remains a matter of conjecture. Rather than having customers consciously disconnect from their airline experience, however, a good concierge service can help passengers actively reconnect — making the role of airline concierge a lofty position, indeed.
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