As a consultant, I go where the clients are. I was recently traveling through Chicago and had one of “those” travel experiences. I was on a United Airlines flight direct back to Philadelphia that was supposed to leave at 6pm. We boarded the plane at 5:30pm and everything seemed in order. Well, it wasn’t. As it turns out, the crew were late to our plane because they had been flying a chartered flight that landed in the private hangar across O’hare. It was because of their tardiness, that we missed the window to take off before a bad weather storm consistening of sideways rain and hail ensued. After the hail finished coming down, we had to have the plane inspected for hail damage and then get in line with the rest of the planes in O’hare’s version of bumper-to-bumper traffic. We took off at midnight – 6 hours late.
I don’t put any blame on United for the weather. Safety first and it clearly wasn’t safe for a while. However, I do attritube blame for not having the crew there when they needed it and proactively boarding 300 passengers on a plane with the “fingers-crossed, I hope I get lucky” plan. As with people, you see companies’ true colors when adversity hits and not when things are going well. When it was clear we were in for a long one, United didn’t check in with the passengers to see how we were doing. Instead, they offered several vague updates on potential departure times and weather status. They were definitely telling us and not engaging us.
It was interesting to see what happened at hour 3. I assume due to the Jet Blue debacle a few years back that all airlines are obligated to offer drink and food as well as open the door (if possible) when the wait time hits 3 hours. On cue, the United flight attendants walked down the aisle with puny bags of pretzels and 6 oz cups of water. Pretty weak given I was supposed to be home within 3 hours. I know Southwest would have opened the “bar” or at least offered the full drink cart of options for drinks. Not United. They then made the door announcement which sounded something like “We have opened the door. You are welcomed to get off the plane, but recognize that if you deplane, we will have to rebook you on another flight tomorrow and you cannot reboard.” Wow, thanks for that empty offer.
I recognize that managing logistics of an airline and an airport like O’hare is very complex and I that the error rate is extremely low all things considered. What I am reacting to is the lost opportunity to create delight out of pain and problems and going the extra mile instead of checking the box. There was minimal food, hardly any drink, no entertainment, noone attempting to make light of a bad situation, etc.
Finally, the nail in the coffin. Around hour 4, the flight attendants came through the plane passing out “We’re sorry” voucher cards. They had a unique code that you could apply to a website and get some sort of compensation. Here is what they said:
Let’s break this down. United’s customers had to sit on a plane an extra 5 1/2 hours before we left the gate because their pilots were late and we missed our takeoff window. For these customers on a full flight, they require a 30 day window to claim their compensation or they get nothing. They offered a $25 certificate or a 10% off cert with a ton of restrictions and both with expiration dates. So, are these actions customer-focused or economically-driven? Why can’t they be both? The message I took away is that they value me at less than $5 an hour, 5 pretzels and 6 oz of water. Think of all the things they could have done that do not cost them a lot of money – a free day in the lounge, a 1-time voucher to go in the preferred x-ray line, free baggage check, etc. Hurry up and claim your $25 certificate so you can book another ticket with United within a year. Really?
In today’s world of commerce, customers have a voice and choice and use it often. This post is exercising my voice. I already chose last week when I had to return to Chicago. I flew through Midway with the sole intent to fly on Southwest. They aren’t box checkers when it comes to delivering customer experience.