Budget airline determined to give passengers their money’s worth

June 18th, 2012 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

As more and more airlines struggle with fluctuating fuel costs, labor disputes and competition that puts downward pressure on fares, they cut wherever they can, and for passengers the clearest sign of this trend is the loss of services once considered standard. It started with charging for drinks and meals on shorter flights, then charging for a second checked bag or even the first. Ireland’s premier budget carrier Ryanair has taken these cost-cutting measures to almost laughable extremes.

Skymark home page

Japanese carriers have always had the highest reputation for service, which is one of the reasons Japanese fliers remained faithful for so long and paid extra for those services. The JAL bankruptcy proved that this was no longer the case, and in recent years Japanese airlines have had to genuinely compete with others for customers, even Japanese customers. Now budget Japanese carriers have softened service, and some think that one of the pioneers, Skymark, has gone too far.

Earlier this month the media covered the airline’s “service concept,” which, in practical terms, doesn’t really make a huge difference in a passenger’s in-flight experience. However, the way it was presented seemed geared to offend. According to the Asahi Shimbun’s reports, the “instructions,” printed on B5-size pieces of paper and inserted in seat pockets on aircraft starting May 18, state that flight attendants are not obligated to “help passengers stow luggage on board the aircraft,” meaning that passengers are totally responsible for their own bags. More to the point, the instructions also state that attendants and other staff do not have to “use the polite language that airlines conventionally use.” And except for the company-issued polo shirts and windbreakers, staff can dress or make up any way they want.

After the media made a big deal of the service concept, Skymark announced that it did not constitute any sort of change but was a “clarification” of policies already in effect. The transportation ministry was mainly concerned with the “tone” of the clarification, which seemed to be a “challenge to” rather than a “violation of” existing regulations. In particular, the ministry was concerned that Skymark’s refusal to “accept complaints” from passengers on matters that “don’t directly affect customers” might cause problems.

A Skymark public relations representative told the Asahi that the staff’s priority was passenger safety; that, unlike on “conventional airlines,” they are not focused on service. So if a passenger had a safety-related complaint, the airline would listen carefully, but if it was a service-related complaint, they wouldn’t. Examples of complaints that would be ignored are situations such as flight attendants chatting among themselves or not quieting crying babies. A former Lufthansa employee told the paper that this hands-off service policy is no different really than the service policy of budget airlines overseas. (And, realistically speaking, what can a flight attendant do about a crying baby?)

The problem is that Skymark chose to clarify it in a particularly blunt way for Japanese people, many of whom are used to a certain level of service even when they are not necessarily paying for it. So what the situation comes down to is that Skymark wants its passengers to understand exactly what the term “budget airline” means, and for the most part their passengers understand this. Comments on various social networks and bulletin boards indicate that consumers understand where the airline is coming from. In most cases, the sentiment is that as long as the passenger gets where he is going, service is beside the point. However, a few people are of the opinion that if attendants don’t care about service, how reliable will they be in an emergency? In other words service is about more than just handing out cups of water.

As a matter of fact, the clarification of Skymark’s service concept coincides with a stated promise by the airline to improve its situation following a citation from the transport ministry for six safety lapses involving matters such as flying too low and using unauthorized runways. However, the biggest beef leveled at Skymark came from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government when it learned that the airline instructed passengers who had complaints to direct them to Tokyo’s Consumer Center rather than to staff on the aircraft. The Consumer Center said that Skymark should be responsible for handling gripes about its service, and on June 6, the airline apologized and said it would revise the service concept accordingly, but a subsequent Asahi report indicated that all Skymark did was clean up the writing. It basically says the same thing.

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