Rant: How Can Airlines Handle Conflicts

By | September 24, 2009
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Yesterday, we were reading Chris Elliott’s Travel Troubleshooter blog. He posted excerpts from letters sent and received by a regular flier and US Airways. And we started contemplating the issue of how airlines might handle things when the airline and the passenger cannot see eye to eye.

Mr. Winn, the President of a private university, admittedly did not comply with the instructions of a flight attendant. As he sees it, “was threatened with arrest and deplaned for wearing an eyemask.” US Airways did not comment directly to Chris on the subject, but their official letter states that, their “personnel view this encounter from a different perspective…Our reports indicate the Captain of Flight supported the recommendation, and we uphold that decision.

We don’t want to address the right or wrong nature of Mr. Winn’s encounter. His own description of events portrays him as possibly difficult and there is a whole comment section full of people argument the merits of airline vs passenger you can read at your leisure. We want to discuss how the airline can address this issue.

Conflicts occur. Even the best of employees can get involved with them, and no side has a monopoly on being difficult. In this circumstance, the airline made the decision not to tell Mr. Winn how the employees saw his situation. Now, that is simultaneously a good and bad move. If their report on the subject was not complimentary, it helps nothing to reveal it. However, it still doesn’t satisfy Mr. Winn.

Employee reports are rarely going to paint themselves as the villain though. We were thinking about medical review boards until one of the comments pointed out the idea of a civilian-police review board. Would Mr. Winn have been satisfied if the flight attendant in question had to have the incident reviewed with(not by) a group of their peers…not to discipline them, but to discuss methods that the situation could have been handled better?

Would the public in general react well knowing that flight attendants who are forced to handle difficult situations are subject to this sort of coaching/training and development. Of course, the public, especially the complaining party, would never get to know the results of these meetings, but can be satisfied knowing that the airline publicly discloses this process.

Which brings us to the next aspect of the our rant. Why aren’t airlines more transparent with how they handle disputes? Getting an impersonal letter telling you that the airline is right and you are wrong is not a good way to respond even if you are wrong. Most reasonable people will be satisfied if they feel that the Negative response they are receiving is a fair one, and that means details of some sort.

Some organizations receive mail so infrequently, that the automatic response is to send you a coupon for your interest(often without reading your letter). Airlines could also do something like this. There are many small token gestures that mean little to the airline, but maintain customer loyalty. Take this sample paragraph we wrote.

Dear Sir…we are sorry you were unable to take the flight you were originally scheduled on. Through our investigation, we have discovered that our personnel view this encounter from a different perspective. While we fully support their decision based on our review, we acknowledge your displeasure over the events. A copy of this letter has been used to further the training and development of our personnel. We appreciate your business, and that you chose to write in to express yourself in regards to our service is appreciated. We hope to see you again. Toward that end, we have enclosed this voucher for you to use when you fly us next. It can be redeemed for a complimentary snack or beverage on our next flight.

This letter supports the crew involved and upholds those decisions, but makes the passenger feel that someone addressed the complaint, and gave a token gift for his troubles. A free piece of luggage, priority boarding, or such, depending on the airline, is a good token gesture that costs little to the bottom line and maintains customer loyalty. For the price of a bag of chips, an airline might keep Mr. Winn’s loyalty. Even without that, the kind words acknowledging his feelings and making him feel as if steps are taken to prevent situations like this might do it for no cost.

Airlines can also be proactive. Whenever there is an incident, they can automatically send a form email using the information on the person’s record, advising that the incident will be reviewed and that any disruption, regardless of reason or fault, is taken seriously by the carrier.This is all abstract, but what do you want your airline to do in terms of customer service in the face of a conflict?

Caring, or even the appearance of caring, costs little to the airline, even when they are forced to back it up with action. And goodwill is an asset with no monetary value, but a tremendous monetary effect.

More rants to come, we suppose. Why airlines don’t realize that good customer service as a way of growing loyalty and thus profits is a pet peeve of ours.

What do you think? Comment with your own thoughts below.