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Media and Crisis Management

Customer Service Debacle – At an airport!

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Customer Service Debacle – At an airport!Crisis Response

How good are you are at solving crises? Assume you are an airline CEO and learn of the following real world case as told me by a family – customers of yours – stranded at Dulles International Airport.

We’ll call them the Smiths: a family of four heading from Seattle to their first European vacation ever. Extremely strong June Northeast storms delayed or cancelled vast numbers of flights. The Smiths’ reservations were toast. They were trying to resume their vacation, but the days-long storm had blown out most schedules. Vacant seats were rare because of tourist season and the fact that airline fleets are smaller to ensure profitability. Planes were at near capacity even before the deluge.

At this point, Mr/Ms CEO, since you can’t change weather, fleet size or tourist season, you would probably hope that at least your employees would ease passenger anxiety. The Smiths described a disaster.

An airline employee directed the desperate Smiths to stand in a particular customer service line to get new reservations. After creeping along for two hours they reached the desk where the agent said, “Sorry, you’re in the wrong line. We cannot process international tickets or help with other airlines. Go to the service center at the other concourse.”

So, they started all over in the other line and began a new hours-long wait. As they neared the desk the clock struck 1 a.m. The ticket agents turned into pumpkins. As scores of dumfounded people in line watched, the employees closed up shop and simply walked away. Everyone, including Mr. Smith, now had to sleep on the terminal floor to hold their place in line for the agents’ return five hours later. Eventually, the help desk reopened and Mr. Smith reached the ticket agent who dropped this bomb. “We can get you confirmed seats on a flight that departs five days from now.” Five days! Mr. Smith took the reservations and began frantically to look for an earlier way out of Dulles to Europe.

The Smith adults alternated standing in packed lines hoping for standby seats for four people. Aggravating the wait was a near total absence of hotel rooms and rental cars because of the crush of stranded travelers. The Smith children slept on brick-hard terminal seats while mom and dad alternated scouting escape routes.

After all they had endured a veteran flier surprised Ms. Smith with this advice: skip the lines and call the airline 800 numbers. They did and almost immediately got an indication they might flee Dulles sooner. When I last saw them, the Smiths were still trying to retrieve their mangled vacation and remain calm. I trust they did and did not have to wait five days.

As I effortlessly flew home on the same airline (my travels were thankfully far from the bad weather) I reflected on this case. Sure, most airlines and employees have been battered economically in recent years, but does that justify what happened?

Why would vacation travelers get no guidance on how to extract themselves from such a nightmare? Why couldn’t an employee periodically tell everyone in line that help for international travelers and those looking for assistance with other airlines must go elsewhere? Why, during an obvious storm crisis, would a help desk shut down for hours and leave everyone adrift? Why couldn’t an employee periodically advise people in lines to try the 800 numbers? Why must people sleep on floors? In short, why were customers treated like cattle?

And what about the crisis principles violated: 1) take care of victims, 2) fix the problem, 3) communicate with stakeholders, 4) don’t make it worse, 5) get it over with, and 6) reassure people that you will try to make them safe.

There has to be a better way to run an airline. As CEO, how would you fix this?

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