Customer Service in a hostile situation

Over the years customer service at the legacy air carriers seems to have dropped off precipitously. Maybe that isn’t a surprise to anyone, but today on my way to Atlanta there was a perfectly bad situation happening right next to me and it serves to demonstrate how a disconnected mission can muddle up an already bad situation.

We’re boarding US5253 from Omaha to Charlotte and the all-too-familiar PA announcement “We are in an oversold situation and are looking for 2 passengers to give up their seats. We will give you $250 of travel vouchers.” Then the same announcement 5 minutes later as the plane was filling up.

It ends up there were no takers and the gentleman with his pre-teen son were left to fidget outside the plane awaiting their fate nervously wondering if they’d be able to join the rest of their family on their Nassau vacation.

Onboard were the Mrs. and their younger two sons getting more and more nervous as the hopes of seeing their father and brother wasn’t being realized. The sweet woman – let’s call her the victim – was next to me, pregnant and busy consoling her young sons. As she is sitting next to me I learn of the situation, 6 months ago they had booked the vacation on Orbitz, which…great, thinking ahead, doing everything right. So, to their surprise, American Airlines/US Airways doesn’t have a flight from Charlotte to Nassau…anymore. That’s a big deal.

So, that’s right, they book a vacation only to discover at the airport that the flight doesn’t exist. And, of course, it is no sin to discontinue a service, but it seems reasonable to tell your customer that their plans will have at least changed…right? I digress.

Clearly a mix-up, a very bad one, but salvageable. And the airliner staff was working on making something happen, but from my vantage point, next to the victim, it sounded very confusing. At one moment they were “sure” they could get everyone to meet up in Miami to board a plane to the destination…wait, ‘no’ it’s going to be difficult and they can’t commit because ‘all flights are full.’ Then Miami via Dallas sounded like a possibility, but that disintegrated too.

Deplaning sounded like it was becoming the best option, but as a pilot myself I’m aware that once they close the cabin door there is no getting off. So I call to an attendant and let her know it may be best to not shut the door yet because of this situation the crew was becoming more and more aware of. And they, the attendants, really did seem to have some empathy for this woman. The situation really looks terribly uncomfortable and confusing.

But now time is pushing against everyone, we did need to get a resolution to this problem as the delay was encroaching on connection flights. This is when customer service spiraled out of control.

The stewardess was calm, albeit somewhat agitated, when she asked that the victim please make a decision…so she did; they were staying on board. “Yes” final decision. The young boys had been frantic for a moment but were assured dad would be meeting up with them…no problem.

Well during the young boy’s distraught calls for dad the captain had become “afraid the boy is having a panic attack” and sent a stewardess to find out if that was possible. At this point the boy was calm, but when they brought it up again he started to cry, and not a frantic cry, an “I don’t want to leave daddy behind” kind of cry. Perfectly acceptable…especially given the circumstances and chaos.

Well that did it, the emotional response of the captain, who may have been the least informed person in this chain, triggered action. The authority of the craft was now engaged and had a mission to complete (to his credit actually) and was going to make sure his preconceived decision to deplane the 3 was put into action in the form of a question “What are we going to do here?” to which the victim explained her situation. Well, that somehow turned into “Let’s go, it sounds like this is better handled out at the gate.”

He effectively kicked her off of the craft with a stern “I’m just being reasonable here” look and tone of voice, because of a ‘misbehaving’ child (who was behaving just fine) and whose behavior is easily tied directly to the confusion the airline caused by:

  • Not having the flight they’d sold the family
  • Letting the family board without a plan
  • Not being able to give any assurance during the boarding process
  • Not letting the wife get a credit card from her husband so they could eat…so they could EAT!!!
  • And having multiple people involved in the process, all of whom had different levels of understanding and varying degrees of empathy for the woman’s situation.

So there is a takeaway in all of this.

When it comes to taking care of a tough situation it is best to have a policy that allows for a point person to walk the customer through the process efficiently and whose only mission is to satisfy the customer’s concerns as best as possible. Any guidance in this situation could have saved so much hassle, fear, and anxiety. But when a top-down decision had to be doled for a mission (getting there) unrelated to the woman’s problem all hope was lost. There was no rectifying anything at that point, the airline just let a customer down and were seemingly more troubled by the woman than they were interested in making anything right. That was a task the gate would have to handle, the gate was their easy button.

And as I’m wrapping up this post on board that same flight, with an empty seat next to me, one of the stewardesses came to pick up trash. I’m clearly busy typing away and she stands there for about 15 seconds with the open bad…waiting for me to recognize the opportunity. She let out a kind of silent gasp that I heard as “you need to pay attention.” No mam, I don’t, you need to brush up on your skills and tend to people, not set expectations that depend on adherence to your work schedule.

I’m the customer and that needs to mean something

Or, rather…it would have been better for your employer because I guarantee you that I will be far less likely to book with a legacy carrier nowadays because their staff, almost across the board, has no interest in anything except doing as little as possible to earn as much as they can at the expense of the satisfied customers. I might blame the union, but there is as good of a chance that that’s not fair as that it is, but there is a ubiquitous application of disconcerting in this industry and it is frustrating.

However, that said, it does give me insight into how we will be developing and restructuring our Customer Service department. So something good can come of misfortune.