Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My Flight Home

I flew home yesterday from a mini vacation to visit friends. I had a great time but because I'm mention this on a marketing blog it can only mean one thing: I have an airline story for you.

I flew on United Airlines and had an early flight out of Dayton, Ohio. I was to leave Dayton around 10 am, make a quick stop in Washington, DC and then I be home at 2 pm.

I was greeted at the United Airlines check-in counter by an unusually long line. After five minutes of standing still I learned that a flight to Chicago was delayed and these were travelers with no hope of making their connecting flights. Fearing the same fate, I stepped aside and quickly checked in. The desk staff still managed to help despite being overwhelmed and frustrated.

I landed at Washington's Dulles airport with 40 minutes to make my next flight. Naturally, I check the first arrival/departure monitor I see to learn what gate I need to go (possible hustle) to.

Discreetly in the bottom corner of one of the monitors is a sheet of computer paper that reads "monitor malfunctioning, please see agent" for information.

A few steps over is a United customer service desk. I get in line as both reps are being shouted at by customers. A couple minutes later I discover that my gate is actually just a short walk down the terminal- so I found time to get a drink.

Unknowingly, I had lots of it. That twenty minutes before my 12:37 p.m. departure transformed into a wait of more than four hours and a 5 p.m. departure. Mechanical reasons with the plane's air conditioning and lavatory were to blame.

That's the key word for United, blame. Flying's a very personal thing. So when things go haywire, consumers usually want someone to blame. The airline employee in sight often takes the brunt of traveler frustration which can kill customer service moral. Even if it doesn't, it's quite draining and will negatively affect it.

Early in my marathon wait I (and the entire terminal) overheard an angry customer shout at an employee "I'm never flying United again." From 20 feet away I could overhear the employee respond "I don't care... I wouldn't."

Was I shocked to hear that response? Not at all.

It's too difficult to completely bury real emotion at work especially when we are attacked.

Obviously, flying the frustrated sky's creates a huge brand problem. One that causes a bigger headache for airlines than most businesses.

Why? For starters, we must call and text all concerned parties to share that we're late. Furthermore, a recently angered and suddenly bored with a Blackberry at hand doesn't bode well for the airlines public relations on social sites.

Don't believe me.

Despite being a mostly blameless occurrence, airlines must improving customer service during these long flight delays. They screw up lives and kill brand integrity in the process.

First, I would fix the apology. Anyone with a scanned boarding pass to a flight delayed more than (fill in) hours would get a sincere letter of apology in the mail. Again, flying is very personal but the current apology is not. Even the world's best written blanket apology read over a public address system (possibly by an overwhelmed employee) doesn't atone for missing a business meeting, vacation time missed or precious time lost.

If the cost of mailing individuals who fly on all an airlines extra long delayed flights is too massive, then they may want to reconsider being in business at all.

Unfortunately, an apology after the fact won't fix the PR damage done on Twitter and Facebook. However, an airline that's properly automated can and should send passengers on delayed flights a text message expressing their regret and concern of the situation. A well phrased text sent from a higher power could curb a lot of anger tweets because it demonstrates that someone paying attention to the problem;-other than the employee at the counter that's too busy to breathe.

If Google or my bank can do this, the airlines have no excuses.

Additionally, airlines should have special customer service toll-free number with uniquely trained staff that only handling these unexpected problems for the best customers. That would add real value; much more than special lounges and priority boarding.

Finally, I would remind the airlines that the actions of a brand in crisis or in failure are the biggest opportunities to make a real impression on a customer.

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