A Study of 160 Million Flights Over 26 Years Shows Airlines Tell 1 Surprising Fib (To Make You Happier)
The eye-raising study shouldn’t raise hackles though–it should just remind leaders of the need to take the lesson within to heart.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
"Folks, we'll be landing in about 25 minutes, which puts us 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Cabin crew, prepare for landing..." A pleasant word from the cockpit when we're trapped in a steel tube; important given good news for airlines is hard to come by and the fact that there are plenty of things that trap us in unhappiness.
But in truth, you just got served a dose of manufactured happiness along with those peanuts.
A team of researchers led by Tufts University recently published a study where they looked at Department of Transportation data for over 160 million flights from 1990-2016. They compared flight schedules and arrivals for the same flights on the same airlines at the same time of year.
What did they find?
As Tufts' Silke Forbes told NPR:
"Airlines are arriving earlier relative to their schedule so there are fewer delays, and we're all happy about that, but if you look at how long it actually takes to complete the flight, it's taking longer than it used to. So we're spending more time in the air at the same time being told we're arriving early."
In other words, the airlines have been padding their schedules in an effort to coerce your happiness (while masking the fact that flights are taking longer now). A classic example of setting expectations low, and then exceeding them.
Rather than adding this to the list of things about airlines that tick me off, I decided to reflect on the importance of managing expectations. After all, I've written before about the happiness equation (happiness = reality - expectations) and in truth, it's an important part of working with customers. So to manage expectations, properly follow these 5 steps:
1. Expectations arise from history--start there.
Expectations come from somewhere. And not the same where, but rather a whole bunch of individual experiences. It's critical to understand up front what the typical experiences and expectations are in your industry and what the range is. Use this background check as a starting point, which leads us to the next point.
2. Don't assume people know what to expect.
Tell them what to expect (clearly) and ensure it lines up with what they specifically want from you. When I first started my leadership blog I just began writing with no consistent rate of output; whenever I could get to it. I learned that to increase traction I had to be clear on what the reader of my blog could expect--how often, on what days at what times, and about what? Once I proactively set those expectations, I noticed readership blossomed.
3. Embed hidden delight.
You already know the old mantra to not just deliver expectations, exceed them. I can do you one better.
In my former life as a marketer at Procter & Gamble, we had great success in exceeding expectations of our consumers in small, unexpected ways. For example, many times when we were advertising a product improvement like "better cleaning" we'd include in the upgrade an easier to open package, clearer instructions, funny sayings/pieces of advice on the pack itself, etc. Little things for the consumer to discover on their own to over-deliver versus expectations--hidden delights.
4. Over-communicate, with honesty.
George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Same goes for communicating expectations. Don't be afraid to communicate multiple times what can be expected. I probably don't need all the updates I get when Amazon is shipping me my super-industrial strength glue, but I notice that I actually appreciate it when I get them.
And don't forget the honesty part. The truth buys you a lot of leeway. As for the old adage to set expectations low and exceed them--that's still good advice and not dishonest if you have a legitimate reason to allow for a "cushion".
5. Course-correct quickly when the equation is off.
Unhappiness really does occur when reality is less than expectations. If your customers are unhappy, there's a darn good chance that expectations weren't met. Catch it early and fix it. In the absence of information or a fix, customers grow more frustrated as they create their own scenarios as to what's happening behind the scenes.
So, like with airline flights, if you arrive early (at establishing your system for managing expectations) you just might depart with happier customers.