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A day in the life of American - How to NOT treat your customers

December 26, 2018

On the 26th of December, 2018, I was scheduled to fly from New York to New Orleans by way of Charlotte. I flew American Airlines for reasons of price and timing convenience. The experience I had ( and am having, the day isn’t over yet ) is filled with learnings, most of which are around communicating with your customers. It is applicable to you as well as to any professional organization.

While my flight from New York to Charlotte was nothing particularly interesting, my flight from Charlotte to New Orleans is the one with the nuggets of wisdom.

We boarded the plane to Nola but even before we took off, we were told that there will be some delays in takeoff due to some ‘technical issues’. About 15 mins later, we were told that one of the computers onboard was not starting up and the mechanics were looking to see if the secondary and tertiary computers were sufficient for providing the inputs the first computer was supposed to give. Most people have no idea what this even means, and even less what repercussions it has, and this brings us to the first learning-

If you convey negative messages to your customers, do so in a way that does not create panic or confusion

I bet the pilot had the best intentions in letting us know this, and maybe some people appreciate this level of information, but if you observed the passenger reaction, you would see that most people started getting pretty concerned about this development. Regardless, it was deemed that the plane was fit to fly, although it pushed our departure by about an hour.

Personally, I was just glad we were on our way to our destination. Around 30 mins into the flight I could sense something was not right because we would keep climbing and then descending back down. After 10 mins of this, the pilot announces that the plane is facing depressurization each time it climbed to about 28000 feet and that they could not continue to New Orleans at this altitude and would need to turn back. While this is the right level of information given, in my opinion, any cabin pressure talk in a metal tube flying at 700 miles per hour is bound to cause concern, which was evident in the murmurs that went around the aircraft. The pilot went on to say that since the fuel load was pretty high(as we were less than halfway into the flight), they would not be able to do a landing back at Charlotte, with the extra weight. He continued to say that they would need to ‘dump some gear’ and that if we heard any noises in the next few minutes, we should disregard it. Sure enough, there were noises and I would love to know how fuel actually gets dumped in a moving aircraft, but that is neither here nor there.

After a bunch of turbulence and some flying around, the plane landed back from where it took off about an hour ago. We were told that we should proceed to Gate B11 where we would be told what the next steps would be. Once we had all meandered towards there, there was no indication of anything regarding our flight. Which leads to the next learning-

When your customers are filled with doubt, you must have the confidence and the wherewithal to assuage their doubts and fears.

This is not a point in favor of mollycoddling your customers. It is about maintaining an open and clear dialogue to ensure that their concerns are being met with an adequate response.

We stood in front of the gate for about 35 minutes before we had the first announcement come around, which was frankly astounding. The gate announcer said - “We have a spare aircraft ready to go, we also have a pilot and copilot but we are unable to locate the flight attendants and are waiting for their arrival”. I honestly thought it was a joke, until I realized it was not.

Over the course of the next 2 hours, about every 15-20 minutes, this same line was repeated about how they are not able to locate the flight attendants without whom the flight cannot take off. First off, doh. Secondly, in this day and age, how can you not locate a crew of 4 flight attendants? Either American was lying about the cause for the delay, or there is something systemically wrong in their approach to running an airline organization, either of which is a very bad sign for a company their size.

After about 2.5 - 3 hours of waiting, the gate attendant abruptly announces the flight is canceled and that we should go talk to Customer Service to book a replacement flight which brings me to my next learning-

When something goes wrong, be honest with your customers and be empathetic. Don’t bullshit them, they will see right through you.

Whatever, the reason for the delay, if American had been upfront and honest about it, it would be orders of magnitude better in terms of customer experience. If the flight was canceled for reasons of inclement weather, no one can blame them for it! However, it is the lack of transparency that bothered me and most others. Once the flight was canceled, the complete lack of connection, pun intended, and empathy, quickly washed off any little respect I had for this carrier.

To be honest, this is my first canceled airline, and I guess I am lucky for that, which is why I did not understand the Usain Bolt-like sprinters that ran towards Customer Service. I thought it was to voice grievance with the airline, but I soon realized it was to rebook their flights which had not even occurred to me in the 1 minute that had elapsed since I was told the flight was canceled. This resulted in me being pretty far back in a line of a planeful of people seeking recompense and readjustment of their flight booking schedule. As I saw the line creep ahead at a snails pace and listen to the people around me grumble about how they will get AA to give them a voucher and ask them about which flight they can get on next, I got my next and last learning, yet, for the day-

If you don’t hustle, you will not get the success you seek. As a company, embrace all forms of tech to provide touchpoints with your customers. As a customer, and in life, you have to stay hungry and in touch with the most effective means of obtaining information, to maintain a competitive edge. Work smart over work hard.

What makes me say this out of the blue? As I heard people around me complain, all of us waiting in a long line that didn’t seem to move, I pulled out my American Airlines app to see if there were any updates. On the app there was a notification saying that I could rebook my flight for no extra cost on the 8pm flight nonstop to New Orleans that same day. Within the matter of a few clicks, I was all set for that flight. I told the people around me about this, but most of them didn’t have the app installed and/or their account setup and by the time a few of them got through, the flight was booked out. They will be put on flights for the next day, but that is an extra bit of hassle that a person, who has been waiting to reach their destination, does not want to deal with.

In conclusion, while the app technology for AA is on point, nothing else seemed to be. In an age of competitive markets, having a great product, the highest standards of professionalism and an empathy for your customers, outranks many other considerations for an effective organization.

If you have any thoughts about this piece, reach me here!