Travel Weekly Magazine Customer-service convert spreads the ‘Jetiquette’ gospel

By Lester Craft | May 14, 2008

Can a Flight attendant who once held both his airline and passengers in contempt somehow evolve into a management guru capable of helping turn around the airline industry’s customer-service problems?

Well, just maybe — if that flight attendant is Gailen David.

David is no ordinary airline professional. Though he just turned 41, it could be argued that David is entering his Wfth decade in the business. He started booking travel for family and friends when he was 9 years old, using tools that would be familiar to most travel agents of the time: a notebook, a telephone and the Official Airline Guide.

At age 10, David (then known by the nickname “Rocky”) encountered then-Travel Weekly Washington bureau chief Fran Durbin while on an airport tour hosted by Eastern Air Lines. The meeting prompted this publication’s first article on the budding travel pro, back in 1977. (See “Rocky’s road: Whiz kid makes dream a reality.”)

David chased his dream of a future in the airline industry into adulthood and joined American Airlines in 1988 brimming with the enthusiasm that only someone who has pursued a passion since childhood can claim.

Today, David is embarking on what could be a new career as a customer-service evangelist intent on helping the travel industry improve the effectiveness of front-line employees. The challenge is especially large at the airlines, battered as they are by relentless price competition, serial bankruptcies and demoralized, insecure workforces.

David, who continues working as a purser at American, last November launched the Sky Steward, a company that describes itself as helping “drive results and increase market share in the travel industry and beyond.” The Sky Steward promotes a program called “Jetiquette,” through which David “shares insights and real-life lessons” about customer-service excellence.

Curious career path

If David succeeds in his new quest, he will achieve what appears to be the next-to-impossible. And he will have arrived there by a route that has been both curious and circuitous.

That’s because, several years into his career as a flight attendant, David began to resent his work. The burdens and realities of his job caused his once-eager enthusiasm to degenerate into the very antithesis of what he had set out to be and do. He even began to turn on the customers he served, devising torments such as the “fly-by,” which could be described as a tantalizing head fake followed by brazenly ignoring the hapless passenger’s every need.

Although such stories usually end with the embittered employee dropping out of the industry, David sought professional help to deal with the effects of on-the-job stress.

After a 10-month leave, he returned to American a new man, embraced a renewed passion for providing superior customer service and eventually sought to imbue the entire front-line corps at American with the same sense of purpose.

As part of his transformation, David wrote, produced and starred in a 7.5-minute video, “Why I Fly.” Subtitled “American Airlines Flight Service: Gailen’s Story,” the video created something of a sensation on YouTube. But it nicely showcased David’s talent and enthusiasm, and it helped further his transformation from front-line horror story to customer-service poster boy.

David’s visibility and dedication led to training work with American, including a major project last year that, according to David, was scuttled after American discovered that the initiative would not sit well with the flight attendants’ union.

But the vision behind the abandoned project prompted David to launch the Sky Steward. The notion of Jetiquitte, which is based on helping employees build greater empathy toward customers, is central to the new company’s service offerings. Jetiquette, David said, recognizes that “we’re all travelers nowadays. … We have to be aware of how we behave and how we address each other and deal with each other, everywhere we go.” Though focused largely on the customer, Jetiquette “applies to everyone,” David explained: “employees, customers, airline management. It’s a way of conducting ourselves that influences others” in a positive way.

David now Wnds himself spreading the Jetiquette message through speaking engagements (including at events held by Sabre, Transport Canada and the Southern California Safety Institute). His company is developing an array of services, from one-on-one coaching to leadership workshops to a DVD and a book, all aimed at helping organizations’ front-line employees become better customer-service providers.

David has teamed with an American colleague, Beth Jackson, to facilitate.

And he’s seeking to trademark Jetiquette, but, unfortunately for him, so is JetBlue Airways. David Wled an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Nov. 26 based on use of the mark in commerce, whereas JetBlue filed an “intent to use” application on Dec. 14. Gailen ended up receiving the rights to the Jetiquette trademark.

In terms of the bigger picture, David holds no illusions about the obstacles to better customer service, especially at airlines.

Many front-line employees at air carriers, he said, “have been disappointed” because they had high expectations for their jobs but now are feeling severely stressed as a result of the industry’s many challenges and pressures. Demoralized employees, he said, “Really are not equipped to deal with the change the industry’s going through.” He sees many airline workers as being “almost like they’re sleepwalking right now … scared their airline is going to go bankrupt. They don’t know what they’re going to do” and are “in a state of constant fear.”

Neglecting customers’ needs

The airlines, he said, have moved to a business model that tends to place far more emphasis on low prices and bare-bones service than on attending to customer needs. Adding to the challenge is that employee unions can balk at pushing the service message too far with flight attendants, since that could be regarded as interfering with the perception that flight attendants’ primary responsibility is providing for passenger safety.

Perhaps ironically, David sees the airlines’ problems as presenting an opportunity for customer service to emerge as a differentiator. “That’s the only place they can really address right now,” he said. “It’s something they can control to a certain extent,” whereas there are few ways to differentiate other aspects of their operations.

David acknowledged that the birth of the Sky Steward could mean moving on from his job with American. He said he had yet to engage in a project that would put him in conflict with his obligations to American, but he’s mindful that the day “may come soon” for launching into a new career full time as a customer-service trainer and evangelist.

The prospect of becoming a spokesman in the industry he has loved since childhood adds to David’s enthusiasm even further, if that’s possible.

“It’s just amazing,” he said.

To contact reporter Lester Craft, send e-mail to lcraft@travelweekly.com.

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