Sunday, March 02, 2008

Tales of Brave Ulysses

Odysseus (or Ulysses if you’re in ancient Rome or 1904 Dublin) may have had only a slightly more arduous trek home from Troy than I had returning from Miami (if I lived in Ithaca, NY, the metaphor would be complete). Now, the purpose of this post to not to simply bitch about one particular airline (well, not entirely, anyway), but to serve as a prelude and companion piece to my Expert Business Source blog post this week on customer relations and word-of-mouth marketing.

As many of you reading this may know, I stopped flying in 2000, due partially to a fear of flying, but also by a fear of (or, rather, annoyance at) airlines. It was only last June that I managed to get back on a plane again, and three generally pleasant experiences—via Delta, British Airways, and United—were just the positive reinforcement I needed to keep flying. However, I suppose I was due for one bad experience (courtesy of whom I would refer to as the “Amtrak of the Air,” but that’s not fair to Amtrak). It probably won’t ground me again (actually, the time spent in the air was the most pleasant part) but it did point out one airline I should avoid in the future. An overreaction on my part? Gee, what are the odds. But read on and see what you think.

Last Monday, I flew from Albany to Miami for Graphics of the Americas on a particular airline, whose name I will not mention (but which rhymes with Useless Scareways). I should say at the outset, in the interest of fairness, that the trip down could not have been more pleasant (well, maybe only if it had taxied the whole way—I still don’t like flying all that much, although I’m getting better). The first leg from Albany to Charlotte was only slightly late departing (they had to deice the wings) but arrived on time. I had no trouble making the connection and it arrived in Miami on time. It was all very pleasant.

Friday, my return flight was to leave Miami at 7:30 p.m. and transfer through Philadelphia. The only other option was to transfer through Charlotte again, but both connections gave me less than an hour layover—I opted for Philadelphia because it gave me an extra five minutes. Friday afternoon, I was at the Miami Beach Convention Center finishing up my show coverage and I heard that more bad weather was on the way to the Northeast. I checked the airline’s Web site and there were travel alerts for Philadelphia and Albany, among other cities. The site also said that the airline was waiving the charge for changing tickets, so I decided to switch flights to the Charlotte connection (which would leave at 7:15); that way, I only had to worry (weather-wise) about getting into Albany. It seemed logical at the time.

It was Friday nearing rush hour and, anticipating traffic problems and long airport lines, I left South Beach by cab at 4:00. There wasn’t much traffic, nor was there any real line to speak of at the airline’s ticket counter. I was able to successfully change my flight; and the clerk told me that the flight to Philadelphia was delayed anyway and they were trying to rebook everyone on other flights. Then he asked why I wanted to go through Charlotte. I said that I was worried about weather delays and making my connection and, I added, “I like Charlotte better than Philadelphia.” Oh, how those words would come back to haunt me!

Security was only moderately crowded, although the plastic bin with my shoes and jacket went into one scanning machine and somehow came out in a completely different scanning machine on the other side of the security checkpoint. I have no idea how that happened; it must have been some kind of wormhole.

I looked at my watch and it was only 5:15. I had two hours to kill, so naturally my first thought was: find a bar. So I headed toward my terminal and gate and I discovered that there are no restaurants or bars anywhere to be found; just little news kiosks that have sandwiches and sodas. This is odd. What airport doesn’t have a bar? Don’t they know that some of us need a little “liquid courage” to get on these silver gleaming death machines? So I asked at one of the newsstands and the clerk said there was one in Terminal H (I was in Terminal J). It was about a 10-minute walk, but the “bar” was simply a counter that sold Budweiser and mojitos. There was one small table. The guy who ran the counter was a real character named Matthew, who was outspoken and colorful and gave me his entire life history. He said he had been trying to make his counter a “real” bar—or even just add a widescreen TV—but his parent company (which is a big organization that handles airport concessions) said they couldn’t see any demand. This is, of course, what he said, but I suspect there is more to it than that (it being Miami, I shudder to think what the real reason would be). After all, even a big corporation can’t be as stupid as to fail to see a market for a bar and a TV in an airport. Whatever. Still, the mojitos were world class....

At about 6:45, I headed back to my gate, boarded, and the flight to Charlotte took off on time. The flight was uneventful, I assume (three mojitos and a couple of Dramamine put me out so I slept most of the way). Now, the next sequence of events is important to remember. At one point, the captain came over the loudspeaker and said, “It looks like we will be 10 minutes early.” This made me happy, as I was starting to sweat my connection. If I missed it, I would be stuck, as there wasn’t another flight until the next day (Saturday). (And Ken A. and I had tickets to an S.U. game on Saturday, which started at noon.) My connection was scheduled to leave at 9:55. Happily, we landed in Charlotte at 9:10.

One more time for the world: we landed at 9:10.

Then we sat; the captain said that they were waiting for a gate to open up, and it would be another 10 or 15 minutes. Gulp! At about 9:30, the captain came on again and said that the plane that was supposed to leave our gate had maintenance problems and had to pull back to the gate, so we would have to wait for another unspecified period of time. I then asked the flight attendant whether or not I was likely to make my 9:55 connection. She looked at me with an expression that said, “You rube. You don’t fly much, do you? If you weren’t such an idiot you’d know what a stupid question that was.” What she said, though, was “They know you’re here. They’ll hold the plane. Don’t worry.” Ah. Other people had similar concerns so she went and told the captain, who came over the loudspeaker with the same smug tone and said, “Those of you who have connecting flights, don’t worry. They know you’re here and will hold them.” And then he literally said (I am not making this up), “My nose is growing as I’m saying this.” Great.

We finally got to a gate at 10:00. I dashed off the plane and ran through the airport (naturally, I have to run from Terminal B to Terminal D). A flight crew member for another flight stood aside and smiled knowingly as I jogged past; “I feel like those old Hertz commercials from the 70s,” I said, and she laughed (she was an older woman and apparently caught the reference.

I arrived at the gate at 10:05 and was told that the Albany plane had left. I instinctively unleashed a torrent of profanity, but apologized. They smirked at me and said that there was a service desk several gates over that could help me rebook. No “sorry” or “we apologize” or anything. Just the implication that it was my fault that I missed the flight. So I went to the service desk and it was obvious from the outset that the people behind it could not care less. There was, they said, no other flight to Albany until Saturday afternoon (this would turn out to be not entirely true). And that’s that. By this time, other refugees from my flight (and another one) appeared and we were told to go to Gate D5 where a supervisor would take care of us. We did so; there were about five of us. 10, 15 minutes went by and no one showed up. A few unlucky airline employees wandered by who knew nothing about our problem and were not in a position to help us (imagine my surprise). Several of us got on cellphones and tried to look into hotel arrangements, as it was obvious we were not going to get a flight that evening. At that point, someone named Dayton, an airline employee, showed up. He was not really a supervisor (or a city in Ohio), but he took pity on us and looked to see what he could do, and started tapping away at a computer, which inexplicably started spitting out several dozen meal vouchers for a cancelled London flight. As he was trying to help us, a supervisor named Gary wandered over, sussed out what was happening, and called Dayton away to an adjacent gate. From what some of were able to discern, he started chewing Dayton out for helping us. WTF?! This was the last we saw of Dayton. It was at this point that things started to become increasingly surreal.

The “official” supervisor who we were told would be assisting us never arrived, and we stood there fairly clueless for a while. Compounding matters was that we discovered that there was some kind of basketball tournament in town and there were no hotel rooms available. Two of our party went off to another gate, and here I met those who would be my companions for the next 12 hours—Laura and Donna (about whom more later). By this time, it was about 11:00 and the airport was closing down for the night, as there were no more flights out until morning.

One employee passed through—Cristine. She was exceedingly nice, listened to our tale of woe, and took us back to the service desk (which the previous occupants had abandoned pretty quickly) and proceeded to rebook us. (It’s funny how airline computers always take forever to do anything. Why oh why does my cellphone have a more powerful processor than an airline’s reservation system?) Anyway, the next option for getting to Albany was via a flight to Philadelphia that left at 6:40 Saturday morning and connected to a 10:00 a.m. flight to Albany. Cristine was very helpful and gave us a ton of $10 meal vouchers (which could be redeemed at any restaurant or concession stand in the airport). She tried to get us hotels at the airline’s expense, but also discovered that there were none to be had. And, as it also turned out, nothing in the airport is open after 11:00, so there were no restaurants or, more importantly, bars at which to hang out and relax. So it looked like we would be sleeping in the airport.

Cristine then went onto an idle plane and retrieved a bagful of snack chips, crackers, and sodas for us, as well as blankets and pillows. We loaded up a cart and joked about feeling like we were homeless. We noticed that the shoeshine stand had some comfy-looking recliners that might be a good option for the evening, but we were then informed that the police would be doing a security sweep of the airport and no one was allowed in the terminals overnight. So it was back out through the security checkpoint for us to hunker down by the ticket counters. Oh, it just got better and better. The seats were not very comfortable, and the next option was to lie on the floor. Which we did until 5:00 a.m., which was when security opened. At this point, we all bonded—Laura is a real estate management professional in Miami who lives in Lake George. Donna is the manager of the Apple Store in Crossgates Mall (which is the only reason I ever go to Crossgates Mall). She showed me how to reboot my iPhone, for which I am grateful. They say that misery loves company, and I think this is true. If I had been on my own, I probably would have been in a rotten state of mind, but Laura and Donna made the whole thing bearable, as we joked about everything that was happening.

It was quite surprising how many people were also stranded there, and not just from the Albany flight. It was also quite surprising how crowded the security checkpoint was at 5:00 a.m. In fact, it look longer to get through Charlotte security at five in the morning than to get through Miami security at five in the afternoon. Go figure.

Anyway, there we were: unwashed, unshaved (well, me anyway), pushing our cart, and feeling really like homeless people. We used our meal vouchers to grab breakfast at a bagel place inside the terminal, where we came across another refugee: and she had been coming back from a funeral and was stranded in Charlotte. I guess things can always be worse.

The rest of the trip was without incident; we took off on time and landed in Philadelphia (Cristine had been nice enough to give us free first-class upgrades) on time. The connection was made without incident, and the three of us parted in Albany—not exactly tearfully, but as if we had been the closest of friends.

One last coda: I had been concerned about what became of my luggage. In Albany, I went to the baggage claim office, where all the unclaimed luggage was stored, and there was no sign of it. I sighed in resignation; one final dig. There was no point in getting mad or pitching a fit. Just: “what do I need to do?” At that point, Laura called from out by the baggage carousel: she spotted my garment bag which had my business card taped to it. I ran out and both my bags were there. I examined the tags and was really quite impressed: my luggage had actually followed me from Charlotte to Philadelphia to Albany. It knew where I was going better than I did!

When I got home, I was exhausted, but since there was a foot-and-a-half of snow in my driveway, I had to dig out a space for my car before I could go in and shower and sleep.

The takeaway from the experience is this. If we had been delayed because of bad weather and I had missed my connection, it would have been one thing. Or if we had still been in the air and some distance from Charlotte and not on the ground before the connecting flight departed, it would also have been one thing, and perhaps understandable. But the fact that we were actually there and, as it turned out, missed the connection by only 10 minutes, is quite another. And that they had told us specifically that they were holding the connecting flights is also what sticks in my craw. (Funny, though: when I went to London last August, there was no gate available at Heathrow, so they parked us on the tarmac and brought out one of those Arrested Development-like staircars and I got to deplane like The Beatles. I guess British Airways knows what it’s doing.)

But even worse than all of that was the complete disinterest shown by the airline’s customer service personnel. The only ones who were helpful had stumbled across us by accident—and one guy was even reprimanded for it. (I’d use Cristine’s full name but I don’t want to get her fired!) In this age of blogging and word-of-mouth marketing, companies can’t control their images the way they used to, when phalanxes of PR agents could spin away adversity. This is no more. In my EBS blog post, I will be citing data on how user comments and word of mouth are increasingly the primary ways that customers form their opinions of companies and decide which to patronize and which to steer clear of. Companies have little choice these days but to actually try to provide decent customer service. The point of a free enterprise system is choice; each airline even says this at the end of a flight: “We know you have a choice in airlines, and we thank you for flying [insert name here].” Consumers make better choices when they have all the facts, and if there is one thing that the Internet can give them is all the facts.

Adversity is a constant; things can always go wrong, and I think most people accept that (although there are always exceptionally difficult people no matter what the situation). But how companies handle adversity is the best judge of that company’s commitment to its customers. I know one company that failed on this account. As a result, guess which airline I will actively avoid in the future?

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