Can I Hitchhike From 35,000 Feet?


I knew I was in for a long night when the maintenance light came on, but I had no idea that it would be an experience to write about. Knowing I don’t have the greatest memory, I started taking notes when it really started to heat up. How could so much go so wrong in just a few hours time. I’m not talking about car problems, but rather, a customer service issue that went from bad to worse, when American Airlines started having maintenance issues on my outbound flight to Arizona last week. Ironically, I was hired to fly to Scottsdale to speak on a topic near to my heart: customer service and relationships. The positive side to my horrible service experience (I’m eternally a glass half full guy) are the lessons learned. Plus I have several new stories to tell.

Counter (un)productive

Until boarding time all was going very well, then that darn light came on. The counter/gate representative informed us calmly there was a maintenance issue that was being checked and she promised to keep us updated. About 60 seconds later she picked up her microphone and started admonishing those around the gate that she had no update just yet and further informed us that she had no information about connecting flights, so do not approach her with any questions. At least a half dozen more times she informed all of us in the waiting area that she was not the person to talk to and that American Airlines had set up a special phone number just for us, the stranded ones in Maryland. Any questions I have could be answered by their call center. Strike one, never avoid an opportunity to speak to a customer face to face, especially when there is a problem.

I sat quietly with my hands folded, awaiting my next set of instructions like a good third grader.

SMS non-intelligence

Since I booked my flight originally through Orbitz, I was updated on the progress of the delays via SMS (text) from Orbitz. Unfortunately, the updates conflicted with the SMS updates provided by American Air, leaving me more confused than I thought would be possible. None of the messages however were correct thereby making a bad situation even worse. Unfortunately, I was warned several times that approaching the gate might be hazardous to my health so I sat quietly with my hands folded, awaiting my next set of instructions like a good third grader. Strike two, keep communication clear and precise. A confused customer is not a happy customer.

Surely the pilot will straighten things out

A little after two and half hours later, we finally were given the green light to board the plane. Those that had connecting flights in Arizona to destinations beyond had the choice to stay back or to board but American would not guarantee another flight the next day. (“Aside from that Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?”). I’m sure the choice of hotels, at midnight, near the airport, in Baltimore, were only four star and up. As we took our seats, the pilot got on the microphone without skipping a beat and said “I am required by Federal law to inform you that you have the right to get off the plane if you care to, but we will not let you back on if you do.” Strike three, if you are in a position of authority and you know there has been an issue, take responsibility, provide a sincere apology, present a possible solution and get back to your job. In my opinion there could have been so many other ways to say what he said to the frustrated passengers on the plane. It almost seemed like he was mad at us.

Let’s get social

As with any challenging consumer experience I have, I take to my social channel of choice, Twitter, and request information and service. In this particular case, American was fairly responsive. Within about 45 minutes or so they responded to my request for service. Unfortunately, their response instructed me to fill out a multiple question document online (with all answers being required) before they would be able to take action and elevate my complaint to the next level. Strike 4 (good thing I’m not a sports guy), when you have a customer complaining, do everything you can to make the situation easy for them, even if it means bending the rules a bit. Make it easy for your customer to do business with you.

Take responsibility, provide a sincere apology, present a possible solution and get back to your job.

When each of the four instances above were unfolding, I kept thinking, “How would Southwest Airlines handle the situation?” What it comes down to is this, mistakes and problems are going to happen. How companies react will make all the difference to their customers. People skills were seriously lacking any level of empathy, understanding and perspective. When will companies like American Airlines realize they have the capacity to be amazing if they work harder on people policies rather than baggage fees and change reservations policies?

As I look back on that long night, all that was needed to make this bad situation better was one person stepping up and taking responsibility, providing a heartfelt apology, promising to make things better next time, while sincerely understanding that I have a choice in what airline I fly. I should have looked closer at their website. On American Airline’s home page, “Creating a great airline for you.” (emphasis on the ‘ing’). They still have long way to go.


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