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The Pareto principle in flight

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule) states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Whether you believe 80% of your revenue or your own success comes from 20% of your people, or from 20% of your own efforts, the Pareto principle does inevitably pop up in some shape or form in most of our daily lives.

For example, I attribute much of my own success and happiness to the fact that I spend 20% of my day (around five hours or more) exercising, learning and training others. And I know for a fact that 80% of our revenues come directly from our sales and marketing team, whose numbers make up approximately 20% of our entire workforce.   

Coincidence or not, I always look out for other examples in my daily life, and came across a rather strange example recently, when flying home to Bangkok from Karachi recently with a leading Asian airline that receives 80% of all complaints on this route from 20% of the passengers. I know this to be a fact because the country general manager for that particular airline is a close friend who openly shares such information with me in the hope that I may be able to help him reduce passenger complaints, and thereby increase his satisfaction ratio for that route.   

What I discovered from my own frequent experiences on these normally full fights, and from him, was that the vast majority of complaints on this very busy route actually arise from a rather simple — or perhaps not quite so simple — anomaly, which led to a case study of the facts with my team:

1. That same flight, which I join in Karachi at midnight, departs from a Middle Eastern city at 8 p.m.

2. Approximately 20% of all seats on the aircraft are reserved and filled from the original point of embarkation.

3. Few of these passengers have had dinner, as most would have been at the airport since 6 p.m.

4. During the flight from that Middle Eastern city to Karachi only a cold light snack is served, while most passengers are hungry and want a full hot dinner (this is where the complaints arise).

5. The other 80% of the passengers join the plane in Karachi at midnight, with most of them already having enjoyed dinner at home or at the airport, so most ask only for a light snack but cannot receive it, as light snacks were only ordered for the 20% of the passengers on the preceding route.

6. After the plane departs from Karachi at midnight, a heavy three-course meal is served to all the passengers around 2 a.m., with a huge amount of wastage, as I always make a point to inquire about this from the flight purser. 

7. No breakfast is served before we land around 7 a.m., which means everyone must wait at least another hour upon arrival in Bangkok before we can enjoy breakfast refreshments, after we have struggled through long lines at immigration, long waits at the baggage carousels and, finally, customs clearance.

So, when one considers these points, one must ask, is the Pareto principle at work here, or is this some kind of surreptitious airline business strategy to drive up ticket prices by giving 20% of the passengers food they don’t want at a time they don’t want it, while giving 80% of the passengers food they also don’t want at a time they don’t want it?

Confused? Don’t be. The answer I received from the airline in question after I had written to them about this strange anomaly was that the snack/dinner option was preferred by the “vast majority (could be 80%) of their passengers” over the light snack/heavy breakfast option (could be 20%).

However, as I fly that route at least four times a year and have never been asked my opinion on the meal plan, my guess is that the snack/dinner option is the one they continue to go with because it allows them to justify a higher ticket price.

While on that subject, I guess the same can be said about the Champagne, expensive French wines, cognacs, aged single malt whiskies, port and liqueurs all wheeled around the first-class cabin, none of which I imbibe. I wonder whether the Pareto principle is at work here again — “refreshing” 20% of the first- and business-class passengers, who pay up to 80% more than the other 80% back in coach and economy, while also leaving them “high and dry,” but you can be the judge of that if you ever take this particular route with this particular airline, which seems to have a problem with its CRM approach. 

P.S. As a business-class guest, have you ever been herded into a small “business class breakfast lounge” where the selection of food and the service were of a much lower variety and quality than those enjoyed by the other 80% of the hotel guests who paid a lot less for their stays? It happened to my family while staying at a leading resort in Thailand, so it would seem the misinterpretation of the Pareto principle is not restricted to the airlines.

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