You know the drill. You go to the airport, knowing fair and square that the likelihood that your flight will leave on time, arrive on time and your luggage will be at the destination (undamaged) is very slim. You also know that if something goes wrong, say your flight will be delayed or cancelled, you will get literally nothing, and any attempt to resolve issues will be met with a huge line of customers with similar issues (and a miserable agent that is bound to hear all the complaints, with very little tools to resolve them). Some of the issues are really outside the control of the airline, such as weather and airport related congestion. Yet, I would like to discuss the inability of airlines (among many other service firms) to perform, what some refer to as, service recovery. First, if airlines really wanted, they could use hedging strategies such as excess capacity of staff, which they do in a relatively mild manner. But, the fact is that very seldom issues are being resolved quickly and in a satisfactory manner. The issue, I believe, is that airlines do not seem to understand the pitfalls and opportunities that lie in service recovery.
I have been meaning for a while to write about several incidents I had in the past few years, and I got reminded of these when I read the following editorial from Sounthland Times ( “Not minding pees or queues”)
When Jetstar barred two wheelchaired passengers from an hour-long flight in April, we were told it was partly because of concerns about the toiletry implications, what with the pair having only one caregiver between them.
Yet when a drunken passenger charmingly urinated on others last week, the reaction was pitifully and disgracefully inadequate and disrespectful. One of the victims said it took 20 minutes for anyone to answer the assistance buzzer, and then the hostess giggled and never came back. And the mess wasn’t cleaned up – she had to sit next to the puddled drunk for the next five hours. Another wetted passenger was told he would have to wait until the attendant had finished serving people. He was given a wipe for his pants but wound up throwing out his coat and laptop bag.
Now, I know, things are usually not as bad as the incidents described in this article, but it really highlights the inability of airlines to handle simple interruptions (or in the case of this specific airline, any interruption).
To me, the main issue seems to be the airlines’ Inability to handle service interruptions and perform a service recovery. I consider an interruption any time there is a deviation from the plan. Being urinated on a flight by a customer is extreme, but delays are not, and neither are cancelled flights. Several years ago a simple delay on my way to Israel resulted in my dog being stranded for 72 hours in JFK (in good hands though). This was due to mishaps made by El Al (the Israeli airline) that initially tried to solve the problem (in a way that made things worse) and then took their hands off it entirely. The issue was not the delay. It was their inability to handle slight deviations and the fact that one of the passengers was a dog. I never got a phone call from the airline asking whether things were resolved or whether they could help with the situation. Needless to say, I do not fly El Al anymore.
Several weeks ago I was on my way back from LGA to ORD on United. It was Friday evening with difficult weather (but nothing extreme). Several flights were cancelled, and others were delayed. It was enough to see the long lines of customers whose flights were delayed or cancelled, and to see that the number of agents addressing these issues, to realize that American Airlines and United didn’t consider 300 (and probably many more) customers stranded at LGA an issue.
I am not even mentioning being stuck on the runway for two hour after landing on a flight from Syracuse three week ago, without a word of apology.
Services have no recalls, yet interruptions are their equivalents. As Hart, Hesket and Sasser pointed out in their 1990 article, mistakes are a critical part of every service. Yet, a good recovery can turn an angry and dissatisfied customer into a loyal one. It definitely does not seem that airlines appreciate it.