I got caught up in a messy but foreseeable travel delay coming home from my first trip to China. Foreseeable because airplanes are machines and machines have problems from time to time. I used to tease my maintenance crew that machines go out of service for one of two reasons. Reason number one is we did not heed the warning signs and failed to work on it. Reason number two is we worked on it and either did a poor job or failed to really fix the problem, I do not know which category that thirty-year-old 747-400 fell into, only that I and almost four hundred of my new best friends got to spend an extra day in the Shanghai area because of it.
Almost all of us understood that you can not fly a plane with problems. And we appreciated being put up at a 5 star resort hotel with two drink tickets and three nice buffet meals. What irritated us was the airline’s poor communication and planning on what is undoubtedly not the first flight to be cancelled at that airport. Most damning for our carrier was the much more organized response one of their competitors had for a similar situation that night.
For starters, there is considerable evidence they decided to cancel our flight and use “our” aircraft for a flight that was called back to the gate for a problem detected while awaiting take off. If you have ever fought your way through the departure hall scrum in Shanghai you will understand the irritation of sitting at the gate, getting two text messages about delays, and then having a fellow passenger show you the text message he got –time stamped in between yours- of the cancellation. Then you stand in line at the desk because no announcement is made with your fellow passengers and four hundred more angry passengers who are four hours late (2.5 of which were spent on the tarmac) waiting to get on “your” plane.
Eventually a low level employee with limited English skills showed up to give us written instructions on how to retrieve our luggage and find the charter busses. The instructions were poorly translated into English and apparently not much better in Mandarin so almost four hundred of us set off to find the elusive Burger King, duck into the back door of employee security, and get frisked again. Then we waited for baggage and quickly found that, in contrast to the written instructions, security would not let us back through to the Burger King. On our own we followed a fellow passenger who concluded that we had to go back through the customs duty free loop.
The passengers had to help each other at this point because, unlike the competing airline which had an English speaking employee with a colorful banner to rally and lead their customers, we were on our own. Back through duty free we schlepped only to arrive at the Burger King and find no airline spokesman or even a posted note. A rumor swirled that we should head to door 27. Half way to door 27, perhaps a kilometer into our hike, we ran into people who had been to door 27 and found it locked. We decided to go outside into the sweltering heat and see if the busses were really there. No signs, no spokesman, but the Chinese bus driver convinced us to stow our bags and board. On to the resort hotel we went, an hour away, but the bus could not negotiate the steep block long driveway so we had to tote the luggage to the lobby ourselves. Just imagine a petite 100 pound woman pushing a large roller bag up a ski hill. It was not a high point in customer relations!
The excellent resort staff almost saved the day for the airline. They were well staffed, well organized, and anticipated most questions. The meals and rooms were first class in every way. I had high hopes for the next day.
Hopes that were shattered when the busses dropped us off at the departure hall scrum. No one met us; no one directed us to a rally point or offered any guidance. Four hundred more people added to the scrum, battling their way to FOUR self check-in kiosks. Yes, four for thousands of passengers. After reaching this elusive computer and answering all the questions I was informed that my flight was CANCELLED and that I needed to see an agent. I camped on that machine while one of my new best friends found an agent. He seemed surprised that no one told us there was a special line for our flight!
Of course, the hand written sign at that counter’s cattle chute did not say Flight xxxx ONLY so many other frustrated passengers got in our special line and bogged things down. Almost three hours after being dropped off we finally made our way to the designated gate. No airline employees were there but it was clear, given the busses lined up to take us out on the tarmac, that we were not taking off at the designated time. We did not even board the busses until well after the published take off time. And there was no attempt made for an organized boarding by groups. Frankly, free range boarding seemed to be quicker than the cumbersome system currently in vogue. We were ready to go long before the pilots finally got permission to leave.
So why should this long whine interest you? Because despite the huge expenses incurred the airline still managed to risk future business with these customers and their families and co-workers because they did not think things through and spend just a few more dollars to communicate accurately with those affected by their problem. Their competitor had a colorful banner, competent employees to hold it, and led a similar group without much difficulty. I learned long ago that while customers are not interested in your problems, they are appreciative of your efforts to mitigate the damage. Ignoring them does not pay off; you miss some of the initial anger but eventually get a more dangerous reaction that is far more damaging to your reputation.
We all have foreseeable problems that we can develop contingency plans for. Please do not skimp on the customer communications piece of the plan.