What we have available to eat is controlled by different businesses in different ways. Whether they are responsive to our needs and desires is something about which Americans can and should be at lot more vocal.
We arrived at the boarding gate at George Bush Intercontinental Airport about an hour before the scheduled departure time, stripped of any liquids over 3.4 ounces not stored in a clear, quart-size, zip-top plastic bag. I went to the service desk to ask the airline rep what food would be provided on our flight. (This is the airline which runs TV ads boasting that unlike their competitors they offer food on their flights.) The airline’s website establishes that economy passengers get a sandwich on a flight like this one. Here’s what we got:
The airline rep rapidly pecked at his keyboard in response to my question. He confidently declared that we would get a turkey sandwich, a salad, and a bag of Skittles. When I asked if there were other choices, he replied “not at this point” and directed me to the fast-food outlets near the gate. I’m not sure at what “point” he had in mind, as a subsequent check of the airline’s website confirmed my recollection that “special meals” would only be available on international flights — also, “we apologize if occasionally your choice is not available.”
Shortly after a smooth takeoff followed by a bit of turbulence, our flight attendants began their ritual “food service.” I couldn’t help but think that from a business point of view, meal service on an airplane is an important opportunity to bond with the customer by providing quality customer service. As the meal cart approached, the flight attendants smiled broadly. I watched one of them rapidly stacking plastic-wrapped disks on top of small square plastic boxes in larger plastic boxes. (I tried not to let myself get caught up in the question of recyclable packaging.) Surely this was not a turkey sandwich.
When one of my party sitting in the next row pointed out to our server that we where promised a turkey sandwich at the gate, she cheerily replied, “Oh, I don’t know why they told you that.” What we were being offered was labeled “The Right Pie Steak and Cheese Pizza, Made with Ranch Dressing.” I declined this 5-ounce beauty, with 12 grams of fat (about one-third of its total calories), 1,460 mg of sodium, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil listed among the “Nutrition Facts” on the label. As a matter of fact, in my row of six people across in this B737 aircraft, only one person accepted this fare. As I opened a small box of what appeared to be iceberg lettuce and crunched down the flavorless leaves, I read the long list of 20-odd ingredients on the one-ounce cup of “Naturally Fresh, Pepper Cream Dressing.” I was better off not “pouring it on” as the label suggested.
I asked the flight attendant how the airline chose the food they served. Was this a known “crowd-pleaser”? Oh, everyone likes these, she replied. It didn’t take long to finish my “salad,” and the serving cart was continuing on toward the rear of the airplane. I got up to stretch my legs. As I walked down the aisle toward the front of the plane it became clear that my row was not atypical. On more tray-tables than not, unopened or partially consumed steak-and-cheese pizzas lay abandoned, and some passengers had moved on to “dessert,” mindlessly popping little “Bite Size Candies” of “Original Fruit Skittles” from their bright red “Fun Size” packages.
As I pulled mine from my shirt pocket to read the ingredients — sugar, corn syrup, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, etc. — my eyes gravitated toward the white box in the upper left corner of the label under the words “Best Before.” Is it possible that I’m reading this date code right? It’s last four digits are 0406. Is this airline that boasts of serving their customers food adding insult to injury by giving us our dose of sugar, more sugar (corn syrup), and fats over a year beyond its “Best Before” date?
What else could I do but head for the back of the plane after our servers had completed their task. Surveying the rows, I found myself asking my fellow passengers how much they enjoyed their pizza. In the last two rows, only one person had consumed it. In my unscientific survey, this appeared to be the overwhelming trend. In the next two rows, no one had finished it, although another person was willing to admit it was “OK.” By the time I had made my way five or six more rows forward, fewer than one person per row had declared that they liked the pizza, while one man spat out at me that it was “garbage.”
Then I turned around as a flight attendant spoke to me. She asked if I knew the people to whom I was talking. Could she possibly be telling me that I was only permitted to speak with people with whom I had a pre-existing relationship? She implored me to stop what I was doing, with an expression that seemed to border on panic. Feeling her pain, I returned to my seat, as another flight attendant suggested I address my concerns by filling out a customer relations survey postcard. She followed up by reporting that some customers actually asked for seconds. This I tend not to doubt. If absolutely nobody ate these things, they really wouldn’t exist. But that just proves that some people will eat anything. Do we judge our food based on whether anybody will have seconds? Let’s not forget that we were a captive audience for over five hours, now separated by 35,000 feet from any other options.
If I managed a company looking to maintain customer loyalty, I would be less concerned with whether anybody at all liked what I was offering them and more concerned with doing right by the majority of customers. It was unquestionably clear to me that they had failed in this opportunity. As this flight originated from their base of operations, I can’t imagine how they let this happen.
OK, maybe, sadly, I can — a little. Clearly I was the only customer out of as many as twelve dozen willing to step up and actively question what was going on. We each paid hundreds of dollars and most of us just accepted our fate without complaint. More and more people seem to be waking up to the fact that we as customers not only vote with our dollars, but with our voices.
If just a few more people were willing to raise the level of dialog, I believe they would empower others of like mind but less courage, and more of these things would improve.