Service in a Time of Disruption

By | December 31, 2010
CHICAGO - JULY 15:  A passenger checks in for ...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

In the face of the recent storm in the Northeast, many travelers are claiming that the airline’s customer service outlets failed. The trouble with customer service is that most businesses, not just airlines, see it as a money-losing proposition. They do not see it as an investment in customer loyalty and brand reputation.

All the major carriers have closed call centers and offer fewer agents than they once did. In their defense, some of that is due to automation. Over the last 10 years, online booking, eticketing, self-service kiosks, online ticket change facilities, etc have all taken hold, and thus less agents are needed. But airlines often have gone beyond that.

In additon to fewer call center personnel, airlines have also reduced capacity on routes, which means there are fewer empty seats to go around, and thus a disrupted passenger might have to wait days instead of hours to get home after the weather passes.

The airlines, for the most part, do not admit that they could handle the situation better. Cathay Pacific, for example, to its credit, issued a press release apologizing to its stranded passengers in New York. Some of their flights sat on the tarmac for up to 11 hours due to lack of gate space. We had thought these gate issues had been addressed during the JetBlue meltdown a few years back, but resources can be unexpectedly depleted in the event of unanticipated conditions. You can’t plan or budget for every contingency.

Some travelers turned to Twitter to solve their problems. With call centers and airports jammed, the airline’s Twitter agents were often the only way of communicating with the airline. Twitter is used by airlines as a public relations and customer interaction tool. There is some customer service functionality, but Twitter simply is not designed for that level of interaction. It, to quote Morgan Johnston, who manages JetBlue’s Twitter team, “an information booth rather than a customer service channel.

Unlike in the past, when a response to a customer would be to that customer, companies must be aware now that anything they say can be made public, dissected, and go viral online. For example, Jason Cochran, who had legitimate issues with Virgin Atlantic‘s handling of the disruption situation(and that is really putting it mildly), posted the airline’s carefully constructed response, pointing out how it did not address any of the issues he had expressed outrage about. You might want to click through and have a look. But such publicness, whatever you think of it, clearly makes airlines reluctant to be forthcoming on matters of substance for fear of the result.

The New York Times asked several pundits the question of whether or not Air Travel can be improved in bad weather, including friend of the blog, Cranky Flier. They bring up several great points.

By cancelling flights and pre-positioning planes, airlines can limit the damage caused by disruptions. That doesn’t help the disrupted passengers, but looking at the big picture, it prevents a bigger problem. Airlines are not always good at this, especially after the new DOT tarmac delay rules have convinced airlines to become more conservative. As they fear being fined, they are more likely to cancel flights, perhaps prematurely.

Airlines and airports set their resource and staffing levels based on expected situations. But what happens when an outlier like this storm hits? Should the airlines have scores of airplanes waiting just in case? Should the airport have hundreds of extra snowplows ready to clear the runways? Should there be a thousand reservation agents waiting by the phone, if they’re needed?” – Cranky Flier

Airlines can do a better job of informing the public of what is going on. There are more possibilities to disclose than On Time or Cancelled in a Flight Status request. Passengers should have access to frequently updated information and assistance in changing their plans, even if that assistance is automated.

Chaos comes, in a small part, because passengers don’t want to accept the truth. By hanging around the airport when all flights are cancelled, by screaming, or even pleading with airline representatives on the phone and in person…they think they can change the situation. Maybe once in a blue moon that works, but it doesn’t for the majority of people and it slows down the process of helping people to a crawl.