Near Yellow Mountain

Monday, August 20, 2012

Swiss Mystery

This morning I am in Zurich changing planes on the way from North Carolina to Tokyo. Not the most efficient way to get from point A to point B but as a long time advocate of “Around the World” air tickets it is the price I pay for saving money for my company and getting myself a first class seat 95% of the time. For someone who travels more than 150 days a year, getting a first class seat makes the travel experience, especially on long flights, much easier.
I am sitting in the Swiss Airlines first class lounge in Zurich.  It is beautiful day and as I have a few hours here, I am contemplating the service in this island nation (surrounded by mountains rather than water) and how different it is from the island nation on the other end of my flight to Tokyo.
Far be it from me to criticize the efficient Swiss. Switzerland works. Everything is tidy and in place, the scenery out the window is wonderful – quite a statement for an airport lounge, the attendants at the front desk look sharp in their freshly pressed uniforms. A car will drive me out to the waiting Airbus 340 at precisely 12:25pm.  I can’t put my finger on it but something is missing.  Not a complaint but a feeling that the Swiss have everything except maybe fun. I have never been to a Swiss party but have the feeling they are very organized.
After more than an hour here, the only smile I have seen is from a “guest worker” from Southeast Asia who seems to be delighted to pick up dishes. Would I trade this lounge experience for the US Airways lounge in Charlotte?  No way.
The real mystery to me is that when I fly Swiss Airlines, the service in the air is some of the best in the sky. The dour faces seem to lift on takeoff like the fog in the valleys surrounding Zurich. The attitude of perfunctory efficiency experienced on the ground turns into something very different in the air – real customer service, smiles and yes, even laughter. Perhaps this kind of behavior isn’t allowed until the plane leaves Swiss air space.
When I reach the island on the other end of my flight, I know what to expect. Japanese efficiency plays out much differently than does the Swiss. Despite their reputation for seriousness, the Japanese seem much more concerned about the feelings of the person being served. The coolness I feel in Switzerland is replaced by warmth I feel from the Japanese even when I know the person doesn’t really care about me personally but is just doing his or her job. Perhaps it is simply a skill Japanese learn like saying “perhaps” when the meaning is “hell no, you’ve got to be kidding”.
 As an American I am used to mediocre service oftentimes provided by someone who feels serving is beneath them and that they are entitled to a large tip for simply showing up. Maybe I should stop analyzing and simply enjoy good service no matter which island I am on.