American breaks people
It’s easy to lose sight of people in a CRM discussion by focusing instead on the great technology and what it lets us do under optimum circumstances. But we should always keep the customer in mind for without them what are we? Forgetting the customer is dangerous for both customers and vendors in this social age. Far from being a universal good, automation can make it hard to reach a human being when only a human can help to make sense of reality. It’s dangerous for vendors too because when that happens you get unhappy customers who have the ability to exact revenge in the most public forums.
United Breaks Guitars (UBG), the song, the book, and the YouTube series, provides a graphic example of how things can go bad and how some organizations are culturally misaligned with the era of customers. For the uninitiated, UBG chronicles a months long saga of one customer trying to get the airline to repair a guitar badly damaged in transit by baggage handlers—all to little avail. The customer, Dave Carroll shredded United’s reputation by writing songs about the incident, which were recorded on the way to going viral on YouTube. UBG might be the poster child for what not to do and how important it is to adapt to the customer era but it is not the only example.
I recently became aware of another incident involving an airline in which CRM, the attitude and approach to business, if not the technology, were completely lacking. The Villaluz family of three, Americans of Filipino extraction, wanted to fly from Boston to Dallas on American Airlines in July and through a series of missteps instead ended up broke, baggage-less, and blacklisted in New York’s LaGuardia airport.
The original flight from Boston, American 2607, was delayed and ultimately canceled after about six hours. Passengers were given the option of taking AA 2172 Boston to LaGuardia for a connection to Dallas AA 1144 leaving at 7:59 PM. They were also given food vouchers by the airline.
This family is not wealthy though sources tell me they are salt of the earth types, always volunteering and giving to their church and to the community. Their trip was part vacation and part work. The father, Ken Villaluz is a pastor and was scheduled to perform two house blessings in Dallas and the remainder of the trip was scheduled as a family visit. The wife Ruby is a nurse and the 12 year-old daughter does not like flying, she’s actually phobic, and one parent needed to be seated with the daughter.
In New York, the family needed a little assistance from the ground crew to help ensure that their daughter was accommodated because while they all had boarding passes, no two seats were together thanks to the original cancellation. This is something that’s often taken care of onboard by a flight attendant asking other passengers if they’d mind switching seats. The Boston ground crew assured the family that their need would be taken care of by the New York crew but that didn’t happen though the family was allowed to board early.
What happened next is the stuff the make movies about. Since the family was onboard early and very polite, they didn’t simply take seats expecting to deal with the ramifications as the plane filled. Instead they asked for assistance from the crew. The flight attendant instead told the family to ground check their bags (including a live lobster) and stand out of the way. They were confused because they’d arrived from Boston on a smaller plane with their bags in the overhead bins. It makes no sense that they were boarding early and were already being told to check their bags but a lot doesn’t make sense at this point.
The father, the pastor, asked to speak with a manager and one Brady S. approached. But rather than helping, Brady S. only wanted to get their bags checked. When the minister complained about Brady S.’s demeanor, he escorted the family off the plane and told them to wait and that he’d deal with them once the plane had gone. The daughter began to sob, the father already humiliated, sobbed too. The plane left without the family but with its gate-checked luggage including the lobster.
The father tracked down a policeman to be present as a witness when he had his next encounter with Brady S. but after the facts were laid out, the cop excused himself from the conversation saying that it was not his jurisdiction and nothing criminal had happened. Nothing.
The family then sought to rebook on American yet again hoping to exchange the value of their original tickets. Unfortunately, though they found another American flight, the agent told them they could not access it. Brady S. had blacklisted them making it impossible to fly American. Now the value of their tickets was inaccessible.
So family was now stranded, it was about 8 PM and all of their luggage was on a flight to Dallas. They didn’t have much money and had to call family in Dallas to help them rebook on United for the next morning. Meanwhile the 12 year-old was melting down and the family had to get a hotel in New Jersey near the Newark airport which required an expensive cab ride from LaGuardia. United flight 1993 left Newark at 6:30 AM bound for Houston meaning that the broke, bag-less, and blacklisted family would get all of 2 hours sleep that night. The next day, the family got to Houston and eventually Dallas though the father missed his house blessings. Naturally, the family is trying to get its money back and unsurprisingly, American Airlines is doing its best imitation of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
Why did this happen?
There’s some evidence that American is doing what it can to speed up its boarding and aircraft turnarounds to help ensure it gets the most productivity from every flight. A story originating on Bloomberg describes the speedup as an effort to improve on-time performance. But The Allied Pilots Association (APA) warned about the changes. According to the Bloomberg article, “The airline is directing that some flight plans increase air speeds to near plane limits and on routes expected to hit turbulence, as a means of making sure that crews comply with FAA guidelines on hours worked and avoiding the delays associated with assigning fresh personnel, the union said.”
The article goes on to quote a letter from union President Dan Carey that, “’APA pilots are now reporting that management is manipulating flight plans in order to keep an operation under duress from coming apart at the seams,’” the letter said. “’These last-minute manipulations are used to make a flight appear legal when in reality it’s not or is, at best, on the ragged edge.’”
You can only wonder if the speedup prevented this family from getting the attention their simple request deserved. If all this is true, it suggests an almost total failure of what CRM should be about—customers and our relationships with them. Moreover, this story suggests just how decrepit the airline business model is at least for some. This was not a technology failure, it was caused by a lack of empathy up and down American’s structure from senior management who wanted faster turnarounds and greater profitability per flight, to customer service people whose jobs have been corrupted to serve profits almost to the exclusion of customer service.
An airline focusing on on-time arrivals and departures might be able to say that it has its customers’ best interests in mind but that single focus, without attending to all of the other moments of truth involved in making air travel successful is ultimately self-defeating.