Last night, I took a flight from Miami to Boston and we had to make an unscheduled stop in JFK. I travel enough to know that mechanical failures happen, and that's just a part of life in the air. But, the story I want to share is not about the fact the plane had a failure - it's about how the airline's inability to be a responsive business - their inability to respond to this unexpected situation effectively - likely turned more than 100 passengers into people that will never again fly their airline.
Let's look at what happened, and how - by being a responsive business - the airline could have turned the situation around.
First, the only successes of the situation: There was a spare plane waiting for us in the gate next door, and they were able to get a replacement crew (the crew we had had "timed out" - they had been flying too long that day to go the rest of the way with us) to our new plane very quickly - within 30 minutes of landing. So, kudo's to the crew scheduling team. Whether it was luck or not, this part worked out.
Now, let's take a look at where it all began to unravel: It took roughly 2 hours to move the baggage from our original plane (at gate 35) to our new plane (at gate 36). Yes, my grandmother could have moved the baggage faster. But, that's neither here nor there because my grandmother has no interest in coming out of retirement to work for this airline.
I can only assume the ground crew wasn't staffed to handle this unexpected plane. Anyone who travels a lot knows that airlines only have skeleton ground crews on late in the evening (we were scheduled to depart on the new plane at 10:45pm but ended up departing at 1am) - and you can't blame them given their tight margins. But, had they been more operationally responsive, here's a few things they could have done by having the right tools to respond to the developing situation in real-time:
What's more... all of this could be done within just one functional group within the airline. They wouldn't even have needed to collaborate across teams - but they would need much better visibility. End-to-end visibility into the developing delay, visibility into the allocation and status of ground crew, and visibility into cargo time sensitivity.
Now, let's look at where another hallmark of responsive businesses - the ability to gain cross-functional coordination, especially in unexpected situations - could have really saved the day...
Because we were scheduled to have a short time between landing and taking off in the new plane, they didn't have any catering for the new plane (no snacks, no drinks, not even water). Now, here's where being a responsive business would have changed the situation:
Of course, what happens in ground operations stays in ground operations (inability to share situational information across organizational silos is a common theme for businesses that aren't responsive).
Given the long delay, with the right coordination around the developing situation, a customer service manager on the ground in Boston could have been notified that there were likely a lot of irate passengers on the flight. They would then have had plenty of time to get to the plane when it landed in Boston to personally apologize for the issues (you'd be amazed by how much weight a personal apology from someone in power goes with customers). But, no. No one came to the plane to apologize to the passengers (and the pilot stayed hidden in the cockpit - I suspect he was afraid of getting an earful from the passengers as they left the plane. But, again, I don't blame him: he's not trained in handling irate customers as a customer service manager would have been).
Or, perhaps, the airline could have emailed or texted their elite passengers a personal letter of apology the next day. Again, this would be a low-cost no-brainer. All it takes is good situational awareness and coordination.
That said, one thing I've learned is that the strongest bonds of loyalty are created in the midst of adversity. Handle a bad situation well, and your customers will stick to you like glue. So, had the airline been responsive they could have created more than 100 loyal customers (and the network effect would draw in many more potential customers because of the referrals).
But, this is not a story of success. It's a story of failure. It's a story of what happens when you're not responsive. This one failure created a net change in their potential customer base of 100s, if not 1000s, of passengers via friends-of-friends. Now, realize that for a big airline this type of failure likely occurs at least once a day somewhere in their network. The only reason this business can afford to lose 100s of potential customers a day is that all the other airlines are just as bad.
Of course, all it takes is for a first mover to change the rules of the game. If one airline, by becoming operationally responsive, gains the reputation of "if the sh*t hits the turbofan, and I know it will eventually, I really want to be flying on X" the opportunity would be huge. I'm not going to mention names but I will say this, "To the airline I flew on last night, you [should] know who you are", your competitors are already working to become responsive businesses (I know this for a fact) - so you better get your act together because the status quo won't cut it for much longer.
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