presentation is important

November 28, 2018

Shiny tires, polished door handles and spotless paint perhaps do not make the airplane perform better, but they do reflect on the owner’s dedication to maintenance and customer service. LeRoy Cook highlights the importance of keeping the aircraft and everything in it clean and neat

In an earlier life, when I was temporarily employed in the food service industry, I often impressed on my fellow workers the importance of arranging a tray of food for maximum eye appeal. “Presentation,” I reminded them, “is important.” If a nicely-garnished, appealing serving is placed before a hungry patron, it shows that the preparer took pride in his or her work.

I never forgot what I learned in those early days of service to the public. In every industry, including Business Aviation, we are presenting our work to a customer or employer. The first impression is quite often the only one we will ever get to make. It’s important to take time to view the offering we are presenting through the eyes of the person we’re about to serve.

Unfortunately, much of what we do, as the crew of a business aircraft, goes unseen and unappreciated. We may take personal pride in knowing the inspections are up to date, that we’ve carefully gone over the aircraft during a walk-around, and that all the avionics are in working order. The passengers will never know the effort we’ve gone to, making sure the airplane is well-prepared for the mission, but we will know.

On the other hand, a careless approach to the aircraft’s presence, as seen by a boarding individual, can negate all our work of preflight preparation. Consider the sight of a folded-up checklist stuffed between the corner of the cockpit glare shield and the windscreen, convenient for retrieval when needed for starting. It looks out of place, however, as the client paying for the flight approaches the boarding stair. It’s important to clean up such visual clutter to make a better presentation.

Little Things Mean A Lot

It goes without saying that a clean, tidy cabin is a must; dirty carpet, refuse sticking out of a waste receptacle, a storage drawer ajar – these things get seen, perhaps not by us, but definitely by a passenger with nothing more on his or her mind than to judge the worth of the aircraft by its appearance. To their way of thinking, if no one picks up the cabin, what must the mechanical parts of the aircraft be like? Neglect, after all, breeds neglect.

The aircraft itself makes a powerful statement, merely by its ramp presence. Beechcraft Aircraft sold a lot of King Airs, not just for their performance, but simply because the airplane sat high on sturdy landing gear, with a tail towering overhead and a fold-down entrance door containing multiple steps. The equally-capable Turbo Commander, by comparison, rode low to the ground and had a swing-aside door with a sill only a foot off the ramp. Although physically larger, the Commander never looked quite as imposing to the passengers.

Similarly, the Gulfstream jets, with their huge wing and large dual-wheel maingear, look every bit the small airliner they are. When a passenger sees the Gulfstream’s solid airstairs and generous window area, they cannot fail to be impressed. Even an older refurbished G-II speaks volumes as it pulls up to the ramp; a passenger may not realize he’s looking at a 50-year-old airplane, as long as the cabin is clean and the seats are comfortable.

Which leads us back to the need for making a good initial impression. Spending a comparatively small portion of the airplane’s value on paint and interior upgrades pays big dividends on customer impression. Strapped for cash, I once spent about 2% of an airplane’s worth in touching up the paint and replacing worn, broken interior components. The transformation was amazing, more so to the customers than to me; everyone thought I had done a full restoration, based on the airplane’s improved ramp presence. I easily recouped the minimal investment through increased utilization, as clients requested the “newly redone” aircraft.

My first boss in the aircraft charter business taught me to “stage” the airplane by adjusting small details for a good customer impression. He always lowered the sunshields evenly, he fastened the unoccupied seat belts in a crossed manner, he emptied seatback pockets of irrelevant items, and he kept a small hand vacuum charged and ready, to tidy up not just carpet but seat cushions and stair treads.

We Are All In Sales

Why bother? Because we are in the sales business, every one of us. We may not be offering the total airplane for sale, but we are selling its capability and our service, a bit at a time. Ask yourself, after each flight, “Did the customers get what they were expecting from this trip?” Hopefully, it was an uneventful travel experience, departing and arriving on the expected schedule so that they were not involved with disruptions or distracted from whatever in-flight occupation they brought aboard. Our job is to make sure they are bored, by making the trip pleasant and routine.

Not every good pilot is capable of good customer relations. I have a friend who lost his employment at a business aircraft firm because his excellent piloting skills were not matched by an ability to get along with fellow crewmembers and clients. Because plenty of other, more-congenial applicants were waiting for his position, he wasn’t given time to adapt and learn customer relations skills. Regretfully, the company lost the services of a good pilot.

Properly Representing

It is best to have a designated crew member in charge of keeping the clients informed of the flight’s progress, hopefully someone who works well with fussy individuals, in an unobtrusive manner. If a cabin attendant is part of the crew, well and good; if not, the most-willing cockpit crew member should take on the role of customer interface. Flight deck duties have to come first, but when a bit of reassurance is needed, a word from a capable-appearing pilot can go a long ways.

It goes without saying that personal grooming and livery set a tone for the flight’s operation. A worn leather flight jacket, along with a hat displaying a “50 mission crush”, may be comfortable, but a paying customer would rather see a sharply-outfitted crew member in a pressed shirt and tie, preferably with a jacket. If at all possible, one crew-person should meet the party on the ramp in full dress uniform, doffing the coat after reaching the cockpit.

Sunglasses are matter of personal taste. As pilots, we need to protect our vision, but some clients like to be greeted by a straight-forward look in the eye, requiring a moment of uncovering in the glare of the ramp. Others want privacy and having shades on prevents the celebrity-staring they find objectionable. Learn the customers’ desires and respect their wishes.

It is regrettable that we judge individuals by an initial contact, but it is unavoidable. Therefore, nails and hair trim, shoe status, buttoned pockets and tailoring, all need to be part of the presentation. I would not want to work at an organization that required daily personal inspections and kept tabs of my height/weight profile, but I can understand why such appearance standards might be established. Remember, it is not an arbitrary bias of the company that requires good grooming. Rather, it is the presentation being made to the customer, part of the overall flight experience.

How Does It Look?

So, are shiny tires, polished door handles and spotless paint going to make the airplane perform better? No, but they do reflect on the owner’s dedication to maintenance and customer service. Early on, I was taught to duck under engine compartments and look at the accumulated oil residue when I picked up an unfamiliar airplane. If the owner doesn’t care enough about his airplane to keep the grime off the belly, he probably won’t look after inspection intervals and replacement times.

Of course, some customers treat the aircraft cabin as a personal trash dump, leaving a couple of bags of residue after they deplane. One is tempted to leave it in disarray for the return leg of their trip, but a careful clean-up at the turn-around should be a matter of pride. Just be sure not to throw away anything the clients might want for the trip home. Respect personal property, even if it’s a trivial trifle of little value. If nothing else, straighten up the cabin so it looks welcoming to any added passengers that might be coming aboard.

The presentation of a product, whether it’s a plate of catered food or a chartered aircraft, needs to be considered part of the service we’re providing. Making a good impression is never a waste of time. We are all in the business of sales.