Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon territory is a prime spot to see the Northern Lights shimmer over the mountains. During the Klondike gold rush, miners paddled boat and rafts north up the icy Yukon River, seeking their fortunes near the small city. There, they could have met the likes of Jack London, who travelled to Whitehorse to collect stories for White Fang and Call of the Wild, or US president Donald Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, who started the family fortune by selling beer to prospectors in exchange for gold flakes.
Nowadays, you can access this tiny town of 25,000 by air, as I did in late 2016. Wherever I went in Whitehorse, the line of questioning from Yukoners followed a consistent pattern. Where are you from? I told them I was from New York. What are you doing in the Yukon? I said I was hoping to see the Northern Lights. And then the next question was always the same: Did you take Air North here? They asked me at the Transportation Museum. They said the same thing in taxis. They even queried me about it while brushing down huskies after dogsledding. (People always looked disappointed when I said I had flown Air Canada.)
Air North is the Yukon’s local airline. It is a tiny company with a fleet of just 11 planes, making it the smallest carrier in Canada. In 2016, Fortune listed the most loved and loathed airlines in the world based on social-media metrics logged during the holiday-travel season. Delta and American Airlines were neck and neck for the third-to-last place—but Air North was named the second-most beloved airline in the world. (They were bested only by Korean Air.)
American domestic airplane travel has become the equivalent of an ER waiting room: long waits, uncomfortable seats, and an anxiety that the person next to you could be sent to intensive care at any second. In light of recent customer-relations disasters on US carriers—most recently an American Airlines flight attendant who reportedly hit a mother with her own child’s stroller—it’s worth looking at the ways all companies, not just transportation services, could better serve their clients. (Not physically assaulting them is a good start.)
In a time where boarding a plane can feel like willingly walking into a fist fight, what is this tiny airline doing so right? And how can other companies take heed?
Target customers at the experience, not at the checkout
Instead of winning over customers at the checkout by low-balling competition in a race to the bottom, develop a customer experience that’s worth writing home about.
The little things that annoy customers when traveling on US airlines—like baggage fees and $12.95 for a ham and cheese sandwich in a plastic bag—aren’t an issue on Air North. Most carriers target customers by cutting prices on the front end but erode the discount later in the form of hidden fees. But Air North doesn’t charge bag fees, and forget vacuum-sealed sandwiches: Flight meals are prepared by Michael, a Whitehorse-based chef, and his 20-person kitchen team. Each day they prep menus of fresh muffins and bread for morning flights and tapas for evening flights, complete with local sausage, cheese, and chocolate-chip cookies for dessert.
These amenity costs aren’t rolled over to the passenger, either. Air North flights usually cost up to $30 more for a Vancouver to Whitehorse roundtrip compared to Air Canada—but the latter charges a $25 baggage fee at check in, too. On other flight paths, like the Whitehorse to Calgary route, Air North tickets can be actually be as much as $100 less than Air Canada.
Consult your customers’ needs first, not an instruction manual
Instead of scripting customer interactions with a rulebook, leave room to individually consider what a customer’s situation requires, and then respond to those needs.
Air North sticks to their mantra, “It doesn’t cost anything to be nice.” For instance, Janna Swales, the executive director at the Yukon Transportation Museum, has an Air North guardian angel—though she has no idea what her name is. When Swales got a call that her ill best friend in Vancouver had taken a turn for the worse, she was too upset to navigate the website. Instead, she called up Air North, and an assistant booked her on a same-day flight at 20% of the ticket cost.
In the airline industry, bereavement flights to see relatives in their final moments come with a 10% discount and are normally reserved for immediate family members; they also require paperwork from the hospital as well as proof of kinship. But for Air North, Swales’s experience was not unusual. “We can give bereavement flights on the spot,” says Debra Ryan, who runs external communications for Air North. “We don’t require red tape to book the flight.”
Now, Swales only flies Air North. She even signed her first email to me:
(Yes we all love Air North) Janna
Don’t treat customers like they’ve signed an NDA—with social media, it’s the opposite
Think of your customers as a community that can and will communicate with each other—and who will share the good stories as well as the bad.
Multinational companies may cater to massive global customer bases, but social media turns everyone into neighbors talking over the back fence. For Air North, this image is a reality: As in the example above, they don’t require bereavement paperwork from passengers because their community is so small they probably know the family. “It’s the culture of most companies up here,” Swales says. “If a company misbehaves, you’re going to run into those customers in the grocery store. People aren’t nameless.”
Empower employees to empathize with your customers
Instead of measuring employee success by their ability to follow company rules, measure it by their ability to think creatively to solve unexpected problems.
At many carriers, the chain of command is so embedded in logistics-versus-user experiences that the ultimate mandate is to follow the rules. Deviation is grounds for dismissal. But employees in that management structure often focus on the assembly line of the operation and lose sight of the humanity of their customers.
Air North operates from a different perspective. They’re empowered to think on their feet in the unusual situations that crop up with air travel. For example, in 2016 a domestic Delta flight bound for America was diverted to Whitehorse. Without passports, passengers were unable to leave the airport while a mechanic was flown up to fix their plane. What might make an overnight at the airport situation a little more bearable? The Whitehorse-based Air North team on duty thought the answer was pizza, which they delivered to the entire Delta passenger list. In the morning, they brought in chef Michael’s famous fresh muffins for breakfast. In this way, the company empowers its employees to act spontaneously and creatively instead of running operations by a playbook.
Put your president in the pilot’s seat
Don’t let CEOs become ivory-tower executives, divorced from daily operations. Instead, put them on the ground so they can understand the experience priorities of both their customers and their customer-facing employees.
At some companies, founders lose touch with their daily operations. By contrast, Air North founder Joe Sparling still pilots one of the Boeing 737s. “When you see your president working hard alongside rank-and-file employees,” says Bob Cameron, aviation historian and author of Yukon Wings, “it is a tremendous morale booster.” More than morale, it allows the company’s founder to completely understand the day-to-day logistics of his company.
Put your company on the right side of history
Find mutually beneficial, sustainable programs and partnerships that make your customer base proud to be your customer.
In recent years, the Canadian government has been working through a period of reconciliation with its indigenous First Nations peoples. Hundreds of miles north of Whitehorse, a settlement of about 300 people who are called the Vuntut Gwitchin live in a town call Old Crow. The town, far out on the Arctic Circle where polar nights and midnight suns are the norm, is a fly-in only community; roads can’t be built on the tundra and permafrost. With a part of the funding they received from federal settlement programs, the Vuntut Gwitchin bought 49% of Air North. This investment leapfrogged both Air North and Old Crow into a new era. Air North now regularly flies to Old Crow, landing on a sandbar in the river before a runway was eventually built.
Play the long game
Don’t live quarter to quarter with your customer base—think generationally.
Air North operates under the assumption that when a customer walks off the plane, that isn’t the last time they’ll see that customer. Instead of high-visibility marketing stunts and damage control, Air North invest in a customer service-centered strategy and employee satisfaction. They build bridges that strengthen local industries and support national commitments like the Old Crow partnership. Air North may find new ways to delight, but any time it pulls a good guy move, no one is surprised.
Invite your customers to become stakeholders
If your company lives somewhere between a Kickstarter campaign and an IPO, look for models that allow loyal customers to scale your company to the next level.
A staggering 1 in 15 Yukoners owns stock in Air North. When it transitioned from being a charter-flight service to a larger scheduled airline, they invited all Yukoners to participate. Most local investors “were not primarily motivated by the potential economic returns provided by flight and cash dividends,” remembers CEO Joe Sparling, “but rather by a desire to invest in a venture that would provide benefits to the Yukon and its residents.” Shares were $5,000 each and included a $1,250 rebate from the government for investing in small business. The offer also came with a guarantee that the company would buy back each share at the original price in five years if the shareholder wanted to sell.
Hearing that, I understood why everyone had asked me if I’d taken Air North to Whitehorse. It wasn’t just that they were proud of a local company—they were checking on their investment.