Retention is key. Low cost carriers must learn from the mistakes of legacy carriers

The legendary Peter Drucker said it best: “The purpose of business is not to make a sale but to make and keep a customer”. This is what branding is about. It’s not about aquisition, it’s about retention. And the airline industry, and in particular, Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) need to realise this soon otherwise they will find it tough to build brands that can compete, long term with the mighty legacy carriers with their frequent flyer programmes, multiple classes, business lounges, inflight entertainment and gourmet food (well some of them).

Most of the LCCs have a price based offering. Being small, they are nimble and more efficient than their lumbering competitors. These young, brash and determined airlines, often helmed by charismatic individuals with little industry experience have ripped up the industry manuals and replaced them with revolutionary business models that charge consumers for peanuts, coffee, noodles, seats, luggage and most recently in the case of Air Asia, a ‘convenience fee’.

According to an official response from the airline to an indignant passenger, this ‘convenience fee’ is “meant to recover costs in implementing, upgrading and maintaining our online payment systems. It is also to enhance security features for credit card payments to give guests a comfortable and safe booking environment.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this response, available here in full on malaysiakini.com came from one of those stuffy legacy carriers mentioned earlier. You’d be forgiven too for scoffing at the line, “give guests a comfortable booking environment”. How does charging me more make me more comfortable? You’d also be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the online payment system wasn’t good in the first place and wondering what the implications of that might be.

In the past most airlines, including Air Asia, would have absorbed these costs. I quote again, “However, now that AirAsia is experiencing a rapidly growing number of online transactions, these costs have significantly increased.”

The official response to the complaint goes on to say, “This convenience fee is charged on a per way per guest basis because the costs of these systems are driven by the value of the transaction rather than by the number of transactions. As costs vary per country, the convenience fee also varies.”

The whole process has been dealt with in a manner more suited to one of the aging behemoths than such a young, aggressive and savvy carrier. To me it says that because you, the customer have helped us grow so fast, we’d like to reward you by charging you to use our online booking service. Even though it is automated and therefore doesn’t require the ongoing investment in real estate and talent that a booking office requires, we’re going to make you, the customer pay for it.

The danger here is that Air Asia is making a common legacy carrier, or perhaps I can call it legacy branding, mistake. It is treating passengers as if they are insignificant seat fillers and it is assuming that all passengers are the same, don’t have options and will put up with being treated badly. Irrespective of whether it is the first or fifty first time the passenger is using the airline.

Surely, if a passenger is a long time user of the airline, there will be significant personal data available (and Air Asia offers customers the opportunity to submit a lot of personal, travel and other information) and multiple transactions with that customer mean that the liklihood of fraud is low, should that passenger be treated, and charged, the same as a new customer? And anyway, the burden of fraud is with the Credit Card company and not the carrier, which is why it is the Credit Card company that sometimes calls after you use the card to make a booking.

Unfortunately, because the prevaling attitude in most agencies (and companies) is that acquisition is key, the typical response is yes. And it would seem, based on this episode, that Air Asia agrees with this attitude.

However, FusionBrand has long argued that retention is key to brand building. Although LCC’s have thrown some traditional branding theories out the window with their price driven strategies, you cannot build a long term profitable brand, on acquisition alone. Indeed, a low price strategy that aims to ‘buy’ loyalty can often encourage only disloyalty. That’s because a price driven customer is always looking for a cheaper alternative. And, in the LCC space, will often find it.

This is substantiated in a survey carried out by Sabre Airline Solutions, which found that 86% of airlines believe that customer loyalty and retention will have the most positive impact on their business in 2010.

So my advice to Air Asia and other LCCs is that if you want to become a brand, you must start treating customers with more respect, understand that a low price alone will not build relationships, think carefully about how you communicate with your passengers and remember that the purpose of business is not to make a sale but to make and keep a customer.

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