Policy Cops vs. Empathetic Employees: What I Learned at 30,000 ft.

One of my most powerful lessons in design thinking failure landed in my lap. Literally.

Like many of us, I don’t particularly look forward to eating on a plane. You’re hungry, and the snacks are typically less than ideal.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to notice something different on a recent flight.

About 30 minutes into our flight, our friendly attendants began to offering bananas to other passengers. It was a welcome, nutritious choice. Hungry, I smiled at the thought: The airline had anticipated a customer need. Score a small win for a better experience.

When the attendant made it to my row, I knew what I wanted.

I asked for a banana.

That’s when the attendant uttered seven words: “Bananas are for comfort, not for purchase.”

“Even better.” I replied. Fruit had escaped the madness of a “convenience-fee.” I wasn’t going to pay extra. “I’ll take one please.”

“I’m so sorry,” she repeated, more slowly. And then another odd phrase: “Bananas are for comfort.”

Hoping to unlock the right answer, I reassured her that a banana would, in fact, make me very comfortable.

My look of confusion must have embarrassed her.

She sheepishly pointed to the row in front of me. That’s when I noticed special red stitching on the back of each headrest.

For years, I had only flown Southwest. I knew other airlines had Business Class, sandwiched between First Class and Economy Class. But I had not realized what some of these new seating “classes” were called. This airline had named it Comfort.

The bananas were for the Comfort class. After having watched their distribution to other customers, I couldn’t even purchase the ones in her food cart.

The awkward moment prompts two take-aways:

  1. When designing an experience, words matter. Naming the upgraded section Comfort had sent all of the wrong signals. It wasn’t the employee’s fault that with an entire class of seating called Comfort, passengers were left wondering if economy class is entitled to some comfort too.

  2. Cues are clues. Among premium airlines, brands already suffer from bad optics. On most planes, it’s hard to avoid a curtain separating “First Class” passengers from everyone else.

Staring at the back of those red-stitched seats, I questioned whether or not the airline had even asked customers if they wanted yet another “class” of passenger seating. There are likely excellent business reasons for a new passenger class. Customers can upgrade and earn additional benefits. They can pay for more leg room, early boarding and now, apparently, bananas.

There are good operational reasons to mark Comfort Class seats with red stitching. Attendants use the marked seats to quickly determine which customers qualified for additional “perks” (and by perks, I mostly mean bananas).

The new seating class and the policies surrounding who gets what also met a functional need to manage the cost of fresh fruit and to provide more value to a higher paying customer.

Unfortunately, it was also “Inside Out” thinking.

By offering a nutritious choice to one set of customers, then eliminating that choice to another set of customers (while they watched from a few feet away), the airline had failed to meet customers’ emotional needs.

The unmistakable message to customers? The degree of how much we think about your comfort and health is directly proportional to how much you pay us to care.

The key lesson? Comfort Class had met a functional need, but not the emotional one. In the process, someone at the corporate office put their employees in an awkward spot.

However well-intended, business policies without design thinking can be the enemies of a great experience. Designing for humans should meet functional and emotional needs.

Edwin Bodensiek