Friday, July 27, 2012

Mediocrity and the airline industry

In business, doing just some things right and making just some people happy is a recipe for mediocrity. Companies that cook according to this tired formula, either out of pure ignorance or a stubborn unwillingness to change, typically end up losing valuable customers and business. Unless they’re lucky, they may just go the way of the dodo bird; or, they end up having to scramble to save themselves at the last minute.

Or, if they’re like the modern-day airline industry, they can get away with mediocrity without much consequence. People are unhappy. They complain. Especially online (like this guy, this other dude, and Kevin Smith). Aside from an occasional apology (you usually have to be important to get one of those), it doesn’t seem to do much.

We’ve all experienced it. The late and overbooked flights. The cost-cutting. Baggage fees and rising ticket prices. The packing-in of passengers like sardines in a tin can. The measly bags of peanuts and pretzels. The all-around inconvenience. The list could go on. Sure, there are some shining stars (Virgin America is pretty cool). But unless you’re on a flight with some of the more highly acclaimed airliners, you’re probably not expecting a top-notch experience. This is how mediocrity has manifested itself as the industry norm.

The inspiration for today’s article stems from some recent experiences I’ve had flying on Delta Airlines. During the past two weeks, I’ve flown a total of eight different flights with Delta and its regional carriers for a multi-city research project. These experiences have only added to my cynical perception of Delta as one of the second-rate airliners I’ve come to loathe on my travels. 

To start, out of all eight of my flights, five of them were late in departing by between 45 minutes to two hours, and not because of the weather. Two of them were late enough for me to just barely make my connecting flights. One actually was late enough for me to miss my connection because of a technical problem, but I was rebooked (for flights that got me home five hours later than I had originally planned). Lots of undue stress and frustration here, yet nothing that can be done about it. I do my part by getting to the airport on time and paying hundreds of dollars for plane tickets that fit my specific travel schedule. Why is it that Delta can only seem to fulfill its side of the bargain less than half the time? To add to it, two of these flights had been overbooked, which caused further delays. On one of them, the pilot came on the intercom after we’d been sitting there for about a half hour and actually said this: “Sorry for the delay, folks. We’ve had some problems with our numbers and how many people this flight can hold.” Wow. Just wow. And so nonchalant to boot. How hard is it to sell the correct number of tickets? How does it benefit them in any way when they end up having to give people $400 travel vouchers to volunteer their seats? 

There were other problems that occurred with Delta before I even arrived at the airport. Before one of my flights, I was unable to complete the check-in process on my phone. In the middle of paying for a checked bag, the app told me there was an error and that it could not process my payment. I wondered to myself, Am I actually checked in? I found out that I was, and that my payment had actually gone through – but if I had tried to make the payment again, would I have been charged twice? Closure is nice when you’re dealing with things like money and time. 

This makes me think they need to do some serious work on their mobile app. Apps are supposed to be about convenience, efficiency and ease of use. In a nutshell, is the user able to quickly and simply get the task done that he or she has set out to do? If not, what use is it? I won’t even go into the other issues I had with incorrect push notifications or the app’s failure to reflect my updated itinerary. Otherwise, I quite like the app and the ability to view flight details and check-in or pay for luggage in such a convenient fashion. That is, when it actually works.

Delayed flights and mis-information are fairly big issues in my book. Of course, it doesn’t help matters when the plane isn’t clean – and I’m not talking about a piece of trash on the floor or a few crumbs in the seat. I’m talking about multiplying that by however many seats there were on the plane, with some additional garbage in the seat pockets. When cramming into uncomfortable seats that barely give you enough room to breathe, it’s nice when the crew actually has the time to spruce the place up a bit (it's those little things that count). Even worse, the plane's bathroom floor was drenched in something that could have only been one of two things: urine or water from the toilet (both are equally repulsive). Right before we took off, I heard the flight attendant exclaim in surprise, “Oh! The toilet must have a leak!” As I sat in back, the stench of urine permeated the air for the remainder of the flight. Just lovely.

But enough of my experiences and back to the main point. It seems that all of the crappy stuff about flying has become par for the course. We sort of just expect it, especially casual travelers who don’t spend a lot of time in the air. But those of us who travel more frequently for both business and pleasure encounter it on a more regular basis, and it gets old after a while. Some disgruntled customers have taken to the internet as a forum for sharing their experiences and attempting to hold airline companies accountable. There are plenty of websites and blogs dedicated to how crappy this or that airline is (just google any airline name and the word “sucks” after it, and you’ll find plenty of examples). Complaints occasionally pop up on my Twitter feed from unhappy passengers that I happen to follow. A couple have happened to be celebrities and all-around influential people in the food/entertainment industries. Given that these folks probably have a lot more internet clout than most Twitter users, it can’t bode well for Delta’s reputation (think of all the re-tweets, favorites added, and the overall ability for these folks to influence the brand perception of their followers.)
Then there are people like me who don’t have a huge following, but who take the time to write articles about their experiences, or tweet about some major inconvenience or issue that Delta (or any other airline) has caused. I pick on Delta because that’s whose name is constantly on my radar, both personally and socially; it’s the company with whom I’ve the majority of my negative experiences, which go far beyond those of the past two weeks. 

All of this makes me wonder: can Delta do anything right?

Of course they can, and they do. Most companies that are still in business do at least something right, make at least some people happy.

Here’s my one real positive experience out of all of this. Just this morning I was headed home from moderating focus groups in Pittsburgh. I was scheduled for a 9:50 am flight to Atlanta, a 45-minute layover, and a last leg to Illinois that would get me home right before 1:00 in the afternoon. I was really looking forward to it after being on the road for so long. Not surprisingly, I received an automated phone call that morning notifying me that the flight was delayed, which would most likely make me miss my connection. 

What I did not expect was a phone call from an actual human being, a Delta employee named Chris who works at the Pittsburgh International Airport. He wanted to see if I could get there by 8:30 for an earlier flight to Atlanta that would allow me to catch my connection on time (I hadn’t even left my hotel yet). I tried my damndest, but with the late notice and heavy traffic, I didn’t get to ticketing until 8:40. Apologizing that he would be unable to get me on the earlier flight, Chris looked into some alternate options. He put me on a plane to Detroit leaving around 10:20, with a connection I would surely make, albeit at a much later time than I had originally planned. After expressing frustration at my recent Delta experiences, Chris apologized for the inconvenience, explained why the flight was late (technical problems), and accepted blame on Delta’s behalf (rather than shirking responsibility). Overall, he was empathetic and pleasant to deal with; he also threw in a few meal vouchers, upgraded the seating for both of my flights (exit rows), and gave me a $50 travel voucher for future purchases.

Chris tried his best to make up for a crappy situation, and it did make somewhat of a difference in calming me down about the repeated problems and inconveniences Delta seems to love to cause me. But the extent to which these things keep happening is just unacceptable. It is as though Delta doesn’t respect that old saying, “time is money,” even though they could probably benefit from incorporating this approach into their business practices. As a business professional that travels frequently for work, I am frustrated at the amount of my time that Delta has wasted because of its incompetence and mediocre approach to doing business. Not only have they wasted my personal time, but also the time (and money) of my employer by affecting my travel schedule and the time I’ve been able to spend on analyzing data for this project. 

But what can I do about it other than share my frustrations through this article or on Twitter or with my friends and family? “Voting with my dollars” isn’t always a very practical approach given that Delta (and its subsidiaries) are sometimes the only carriers available going to or from a certain location. And managing my expectations? I feel that there are some things for which expectations should remain high. Just because Delta can't do something right doesn’t mean I should expect any less from them. Instead of telling ourselves to suck it up and lower our expectations, even though we spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on air travel each year, we should demand the airline industry to do better. And Delta should care enough about the customer experience and its own reputation to make some changes. I have to hope that if enough of Delta's unhappy customers talk about this with others, share their frustrations, tweet and blog and comment about the inconveniences, that maybe someday things will be different. I have faith in the internet as a platform for social discourse and a vehicle for change for everyday consumers.

As I write this post in the hopes of finishing up soon, I’m sitting at a Delta gate waiting to get on the plane to go home. It should have left five minutes ago, but the crew was late. Now they’ve come on the speaker saying a tire needs changing. Oh, and we have a new boarding gate down at the other end of the next terminal over. After another hour and a half, we are finally boarding. But we sit there for what seems like forever because, as the captain explains, “Our plane found our new gate, but our luggage is still back at the old one.”  *sigh*

This was not meant to be an exercise in complaining, but more of a reflection on some serious issues that I and other travelers seem to face on a regular basis. The way Delta operates, the way it does business, the ways in which it interacts with its customers, do not seem to reflect a desire to meet customer needs beyond getting people from point A to point B. At least Delta is good at that. Just know that it probably won’t happen on time or be the travel experience you hoped for.

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