Sunday night, I was scheduled to fly to Boston for some meetings on Monday and Tuesday. Both my flight to Chicago and my flight to Boston were the last flights to those cities that night, which I normally try to avoid, because if things go wrong, you’re left with few options.
The flight from Des Moines went fine and my flight from Chicago to Boston was running a little late, but no big deal.
We boarded and pushed back from the gate about 45 minutes late. We’re in the air, I’m happily doing a little work on my laptop and the flight attendants are about to offer me a beverage when I overhear one of the flight attendants whisper to the other that we have to go back to Chicago. Now.
As the passengers around me began to freak out a little, the buzz quickly rippled through the plane, and long before (even though it was only a couple of minutes) the pilot came onto the PA system to tell us he was turning the plane around, we all knew. And we were all more than a little worried.
The pilot explained that we had a leak and though they believed they had mitigated the risk (his words), we needed to go back to O’Hare for repairs. As we got closer to landing, we were instructed to get off the plane, take our carry on items and gather in the gate area for further instructions. It’s now midnight.
Long story short, they told us the plane would be fixed or we’d have a new plane within 30 minutes. At 1:30 am, they canceled the flight and started to re-book everyone. As you might imagine, my fellow passengers were in a wide range of emotional states. Most of them not so good.
The airline industry and its employees have to deal with emotionally laden customers every single day. And in this case, they did some things right and a few things could have been handled better. Let’s look at the good, bad and ugly of dealing with a disgruntled customer through their example.
The Good: The airline mobilized quickly, once the plane was on the ground. There were many gate agents, managers and other personnel on hand to answer questions and give people options. They told people they could wait it out, try to re-book for the next day or re-book to go back to their city of departure. They apologized often and profusely and listened patiently as people vented.
The Bad: No one was getting to Boston like they’d planned. At best, they were going to arrive 15-20 hours after they were supposed to, and most people had to connect at least once to get there. Saying I’m sorry only goes so far. The airline could have smoothed a lot of feathers by offering a coupon for a free flight or even for a couple hundred dollars off a flight. Your apology/fix needs to be commensurate to the problem.
The Ugly: Because the flight attendant wasn’t very discreet, the airline didn’t get to control the message or decide on the messenger. The story leaked out, and because it was charged with what could have been a dangerous situation, the airline lost control of the message before it was officially announced.
Why does managing the message matter when it comes to a disgruntled customer? You can be sure that customer is going to tell people what happened. How you handle the situation will color the story and the listener’s decision about doing business with you in the future. So get it right.