By Thomas A. Stewart

Valet checking--the ironically named practice of forcing passengers who have chosen not to check luggage and packed accordingly to do so anyway--is an example of poor service design on just about every level. I can write about this with some authority, having flown on regional jets almost every week for four years. Most of that travel, on the Canadair and Embraer planes that some call "flying pencils," has been to and from Columbus, Ohio, mostly on American and Delta, occasionally on United.

I like the small planes. What many people find cramped I find cozy. The onboard service is perfunctory but expected on short flights. I like the quick boarding and, even more, the quick disembarking, which gives me--or at least should--the gift of time.

The Valet of Death

But airlines always find a way to take away whatever they give you. In this case, they provide overhead storage that's so mingy that many passengers have to abandon their bags on the jetway and retrieve them on the jetway at the other end.

Why this is called "valet checking" eludes me. The word "valet" implies some extra measure of service: your car delivered with the AC on and the door held open for you. As for "valet" checking ...

On a recent trip to Columbus, my half-full flight arrived on time. About 20 of us lined up against the jet bridge wall and waited. And waited. I looked outside. No one was pulling bags from the plane.

After ten minutes in the fetid tunnel I tweeted to @AmericanAir, "No one is even here to get valet checked bags." Immediately came the attempt to soothe me: "We're very sorry for the wait, Thomas. Our team will bring you your bag just as quickly as possible."

That would imply the existence of a team. By now one person had arrived. He wheeled a conveyor to the fuselage and disappeared inside the plane.

The flight crew and I watched as he heaved bags onto the slowly moving belt, trying to stack them two high to maximize the number he could load before running out of belt space. Three times he missed and a bag hit the ground.

23 Minutes Later...

The lone arranger had been at it for seven minutes when--huzzah!--two more people arrived. Things accelerated and I had my bag--the second up to the jet bridge--23 minutes after I'd disembarked.

That was bad, but not anomalous. Once at O'Hare, the crew for the plane's next flight boarded and started its safety checks before the first bags appeared.

Valet checking shows how poorly airlines have thought through an important part of the customer's journey--in this case a literal journey. Let us count the ways:

  1. It wastes customers' time. Intelligent service design treats customers' time as if it were as valuable as that of employees. These wasted minutes are lost to tens of thousands of people weekly.
  2. It replaces convenient self-service with inconvenient full service. I'm not crazy about self-service, but flying with just carry-ons is an example of self-service that works--which is why you hear groans of disgruntled resignation whenever gate agents tell passengers they're about to endure valet checking.
  3. It wastes airlines' time and money, too--a rare lose-lose proposition. There's now an additional step for ground crews. Sometimes valet checking means employees have to hump suitcases up flights of stairs.
  4. It displays a lack of coordination in the service ecosystem. The crews that unload planes work for airport management, not the carriers. When handoffs are botched, customers don't care who dropped the baton. Sure, American didn't try to fob off the fault; they're not fixing it, either. Which leads to valet checking's last, worst problem:
  5. It seems immune to innovation. In my years as a connoisseur of valet checking, I haven't seen one improvement: not to the process, the equipment, or the speed with which bags arrive. In that time, Delta learned to deliver checked bags reliably within 20 minutes--the airline now promises that. It takes almost as long for a passenger to stroll to baggage claim, collect a suitcase, and get to ground transport as it does to wait for a valet bag and walk to the same place. (I've tested this more than once with a friend who'd checked a bag.)

Research shows that a customer's last interaction with your brand has an outsized impact on the overall experience. Airlines are blowing the opportunity to create a good last impression. Make sure you don't do likewise.

Published on: Aug 31, 2017
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