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  • Mike Donoghue

The "Golden Age" of Air Travel

Oh for the life of a management consultant! Travel is an accepted aspect of management consulting, the opportunity to build relationships with our valued clients in person can never be replaced with Zoom or Teams meetings, as much as we might wish to think it can. It lacks an essential element, which is that of being present in the room with a client and being able to connect. So we travel, we go where our clients operate, which involves quite a lot of flying, and as such we place our trust in commercial airlines. We trust their pilots and flight attendants to look after our welfare when in the air. We trust the ground crew to ensure our safety and security (both ourselves and our belongings), to support us in getting to the gate and leaving the airport with our belongings when we arrive.

In a post pandemic world we have to expect our previous expectations will need to adjust to some extent to accommodate the challenges that the airline and airport operators are facing. We need to recognize that processes and management systems and levels of service need review and revision to adapt to the change in staffing levels and peoples attitudes.

To the point made about resetting expectations, I would like to share a recent experience and then perhaps offer some suggestions to airline operators. To the airline operators who truly believe that what they do is the best they need to offer and there is no change required, you can probably stop reading here, because the rest does not make for any feeling of pride.

I needed to get to a client facility in middle of the United States, so booked a flight to Fort Wayne, Indiana with the intent to drive from their to the facility. I also needed to bring PPE with me and I knew this would require additional payment for the hold baggage. On the day of travel, I arrived at the airport early checked my baggage and went through the check-in process. (I'd tried to check in the previous evening however the airline's software tool would not allow me to do so, because it could not handle the slightest deviation from its coding.) I went through to the departures lounge where my colleagues and I were informed that the flight had been delayed, at which time, we realized that we would miss our connecting flight from Chicago to Fort Wayne, so we made alternative plans to drive from Chicago to Fort Wayne; at this time, we couldn't find any of the airline representatives until the gate opened. When they arrived at the gate I tried to arrange for my bags to be sent to the baggage claim hall at ORD. The representative told me there was nothing that could be done and to talk to the baggage representative (their attitude said: "This isn't my problem, so ... I'm not interested..")

On arrival to Chicago on Monday evening I went to the baggage claim office to be greeted by a queue that was anticipated to take an hour or more, as there was only one representative available to help everyone. The decision was made with my colleagues that we would arrange collection of my bag from Fort Wayne the next morning. I attempted to contact the "customer care" line (which I've written in quotations, as I wasn't given support nor care, only the opportunity to listen to the most repetitive noise that I suspect was intended to be music ....), after waiting on the line for an hour the line went dead. I went to bed, unhappy and without my belongings. I woke up the next morning at 5:30am to resume my attempt to find/retrieve my bag using the airline operators "Track my bag" feature on their app, which didn't work properly; this lead to me spending another hour and twenty minute wait on the "Customer Care" phone line to talk to a representative. (Fun fact" when the bot tells you that they are experiencing significant temporary call volumes and you have have to wait 15 to 20 minutes, this actually means that you should double the longest duration and add between ten and thirty minutes to your wait.) When I finally got through, I was informed that the bag hadn't left Calgary so I requested that it not be sent. the representative informed that my request would be passed on (note they didn't say that my request would be carried out and I could pick it up on my return to Calgary).

On Wednesday morning I got a call telling me the bag was ready to be picked up at Fort Wayne Airport. A conversation continued with a bright and cheery person who understood that I was two hours from the airport and agreed with my request that I could collect it on Friday morning at 7am, which was when I would be checking in on my return flight at Fort Wayne. Interestingly enough, they seemed to forget to mention or didn't know that know one would actually be available.

On Friday my colleagues and I arrived at the airport and I went to the check-in desk for the airline operator, no one was there. I asked various airport personnel if they could contact the airline operator representative, to be told there would only be someone to help me if the there was a flight they needed to manage. No flights were schedule to depart for this airline until after 3pm. My flight left at 9am so I made the decision to board my flight and follow up with the airline operator the next day when I was back in Calgary.

I'm sure you see the pattern here, so let me spare you the repetitive details of the next five calls,... each of which took around one hour twenty minutes to be connected with a service agent. In total it took ten hours to get to a point where I was told my bag was being flown from Chicago to Calgary and would be available for collection and go to the baggage claim office "near Door 13" in Calgary.

The saga continues..... I arrived at the airport and went to the baggage claim by Door 13 as instructed to find that there was no one there to answer the unmarked door. I walked around the airport for 20 minutes asking airport staff if they could point me to the airline's office, and once again was told that if there is no flight, there wouldn't be anyone there. Funny ... all of this airline's flights had departed earlier in the day. I finally found a door with a small plaque that had the name of the airline on it. I knocked on door, and after three attempts, it was answered by someone who directed me to another door, 15 feet from the current door. I went to that door and knocked. It was answered by the same person, who looked surprised and then asked what they could do to help me, noting that there were no airline staff available. (WHAT!?!?! 🤯)

As the kettle inside my head started to boil, two airline employees walked up to the unmarked door. "Bingo!" I thought, "I have a human who can assist me!" We walked down to the unmarked door I was directed to at first to collect my bag (Door 13). In the baggage office the human invited me to pick my bag out, while there were some very nice bags to select from, none of them were mine. Another 30 minutes began with the human calling various people in the baggage customs hall trying to get them to take pictures of the bags still to be processed even though the bag was supposed to arrive that morning.

So, to make a long story long, add another two hours of wasted time to the saga of the delayed bag. As I write this it is now eighteen days since I last saw my bag. Save for the bright and cheery 7am phone call, each contact has been initiated by myself and at no point since then has any representative offered to contact me when my bag arrived. When I asked if it could be delivered to my address I was told that it might add another 8-10 hours to the delivery and add further complexity to getting my bag returned. Irony did not escape me.

A few thoughts for any executive who has made it this far:

Your customers and reputation are grown from how you deal with problems, not only from how well you do when everything works. When a customer has a problem this is an opportunity to learn from what happened, what you need to fix and how you can connect with your customers to enhance you reputation.

When you tell a customer contacting your support systems, that you are experiencing "significant temporary call volumes" that are not temporary, you either have broken operational systems that do not fit with the current operating context or your customer support programs and protocols are insufficient.

When faced with a negative experience, the longer the problem exists where the customer has to chase the problem to a resolution, the less likely they are to come back as a customer in the future (you don't own a monopoly, there are alternatives). If you are the cause of the problem you own the problem and it is in your own interest to communicate back to the impacted customer how you will fix it.

If you want to connect with your customers to provide service, be present in the airports or provide them a means to contact you in the airport; don't hide behind unmarked doors - be out and present in the concourses. In failing that, at least give them a direct line in the airport to request help, not wait for an hour or more for a conversation where little help is offered.

Final thoughts ... if your culture reinforces conformance to broken systems and thinking, you probably aren't as profitable as you wish. In my experience, history is littered with companies who placed profit over customer experience and ultimately paid the price.

If you have forgotten how to deliver on efficient operations or satisfying customer expectations, reach out, a call doesn't cost a thing!

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