The airlines have cut back on a lot in recent years. There’s a charge for checked luggage. It takes more miles to earn a free trip. You don’t even get peanuts anymore.
Last week, American Airlines sunk to a new low when they tried to send me to the wrong airport.
I was traveling from San Diego to Washington Dulles, connecting through Dallas Fort Worth. My flight from San Diego to Dallas Fort Worth was delayed because American didn’t have a flight crew available on time. This caused me to miss my connecting flight.
The good news is I was automatically rebooked on a new flight. The bad news? The new flight was to Washington Reagan, not Washington Dulles.
As you can see from this handy map, these two airports aren’t the same.
It was an error caused by a big, dumb computer system. It was exacerbated by unfriendly and unsympathetic employees.
The only apology I received was a perfunctory “sorry for the inconvenience” sent via direct message on Twitter. (I had contacted the American Airlines twitter team for help getting re- re-routed to my correct destination.)
I eventually landed at Dulles five hours late.
Perhaps I should feel lucky. In January, a Southwest Airlines plane landed at the wrong airport. The incident prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to issue a bulletin to airlines that was headlined by this blinding flash of the obvious:
Check and confirm destination airport.
Ok, so I’m lucky. I ended up in the correct destination. But this experience still highlights three big customer service lessons:
- The experience must match the promise
- Your employees can fix problems
- You have competition
Lesson #1: The Experience Must Match the Promise
The CX Journey blog provided some nice coverage last year of American Airlines’s rebranding effort. One of the posts contained this quote from an American Airlines representative:
Through the fusion of technology and the human touch of our people, we aim to elevate and modernize the travel experience so our customers feel at ease and connected.
Denise Lee Yohn’s terrific new book, What Great Brands Do, does a terrific job of explaining how the best brands work diligently to ensure the customer experience matches brand promise. Great brands know these statements aren't just marketing slogans. They're blueprints for doing business.
American Airlines clearly has their work cut out for them as my experience was the opposite of their promise.
The technology tried to send me to the wrong place. I felt uneasy as I tried to connect with a helpful human or the right technology to fix the problem.
The human touch was non-existent. No empathy. No courtesy. Not even a smile. Gate agents on this trip didn’t even make eye contact or return my “Hello” when scanning my boarding pass at the gate.
It’s okay to make brand promises. Just make sure that’s what your customers actually experience.
Lesson #2: Your Employees Can Fix Problems
It was just a year ago that I wrote about another service failure caused by a big, dumb system at American Airlines.
That time, I gave a few of their employees credit for their kindness and empathy. It was enough to earn my continued business.
So, what’s different a year later?
It’s probably been pretty hard to work at American Airlines lately. There were widespread layoffs threatened. A merger with US Airways created uncertainty. The airline has been navigating through bankruptcy.
That’s the real shame. I encountered several American Airlines employees on this journey. Anyone of them could have given me what I really wanted: a heartfelt apology and a little empathy. I didn’t get it.
I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post if someone at American had made it right.
Lesson #3: You Have Competition
The Communicate Better blog recently had a terrific post describing how a website offering the same product, for less, as Amazon lost the business to Amazon anyway. The reason? The experience lagged far behind what Amazon could deliver.
Apparently, American Airlines hasn’t figured out there are other airlines. Their service is consistently awful with a lowly 65 point rating on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. That’s United Airlines territory.
Other airlines, like Alaska, offer much better service.
Ironically, I recently flew Alaska from Washington Reagan to Los Angeles. My flight was delayed when the airport temporarily closed due to a snow storm. Alaska employees were cheerful and helpful the whole time.
It wasn’t a great travel day due to the weather, but the service I received nonetheless cemented my commitment to fly Alaska whenever possible.