Flying out of Boston the other day, I encountered Virgin America and Gate 38 at Login Airport. I had flown Virgin Atlantic before and have found their service to be consistently excellent. Not only that, they are one of those airlines that is still 'fun' to fly! From the first encounter at the desk, every passenger gets treated as well as a Premium passenger on other airlines.
What surprised me even more was my experience at Gate 38, which seems to only serve Virgin customers. At Gate 38, I was greeted by friendly--not just smiling friendly--outwardly engaging friendly TSA agents. At first I thought they worked for Virgin, but as they were wearing standard TSA uniforms, I figure they were 'normal' agents, just acting differently. It was as if the Virgin customer culture was contagious and the TSA had 'caught the spirit' of Virgin. The Gate 38 phenomenon would be interesting to study. For instance, are these same agents less friendly when they are at other airlines' gates? And, does Virgin do anything to make the TSA's job any easier or more pleasant, which is passed on to the flying public?
One digital approach to making airports more friendly is the introduction of avatars at La Guardia and Newark airports, with one coming soon to Kennedy airport, all in the New York city area. Will virtual friendliness work? For a glimpse of the digital future, see the Flight of the Conchords hit, 'The humans are dead.'
I am not a service science expert, but my former student and now colleague Christoph Breidbach has taught me that service is 'co-created' by both the service provider and the customer. If I think about some of the fun approaches (antics) the Virgin staff used to board the plane and make announcements, it seems to me that we, as passengers, were also 'playing our part' in making the service experience 'work.' We all smiled or laughed when things were done differently. We did not push ahead at the gate impatiently. We were better 'campers' and our good behavior made the Virgin staff's job easier and more fun, which helped us have more fun, and so on.
If we think of service delivery as an eco-system, every part makes or breaks the service experience, including our own behavior as customers. A great airline with grumpy TSA agents and bad airport design makes any airplane trip a drag. Great service from counter to seat, including passengers' not hogging space in overhead compartments, could make air travel pleasant again. Well, at least that is my dream, now that I have seen it happen at Gate 38.
What is the connectivity connection here you might say? Well, Christoph's PhD thesis explored connectivity in IT-enabled service systems. Specifically, he looked at the social and technical connections between service firms and service providers. He identified key roles and gaps in such systems and the impact they have on value co-creation. Dr. Breidbach will soon take up a post as Research Scientist at the University of California, Merced.