Friday, May 5, 2017

Airline Service Catastrophes

“You’re not authorized to do the right thing, are you?” I asked.

“That’s correct,” the JetBlue supervisor replied, meekly.

This was an escalation, and the supervisor literally was not allowed do what was necessary to assuage my inconvenience, no matter how small the cost. I learned at the airport that my family’s flight was cancelled. All she was empowered to do was cite rules and the various reasons that the situation was my fault. A simple solution would have been to put me on another Boston flight (one was boarding in a half hour), or provide a shuttle to the other airport for our new flight, departing at two in the morning.
In recent weeks, we see these obscene videos, with grounded passengers fielding startling abuse at the hands of policy-wielding airline employees. Just a few weeks ago, there was the doctor who was bloodied and dragged off the overbooked United plane. Then there was the guy who earned an extra day away from his family by peeing too close to takeoff. This week, we had the family that was booted off the Delta plane for violating baby seat protocol. In all of the videotaped situations, as with mine, the supervisor was unimpressed by any appeal to reason or decency.
Commenters on videos and articles about these incidents are correct to admonish the carriers with their “policies,” “rules,” and “protocols.” The airlines cite “rigorous training” in defense of their obviously beleaguered employees (sympathetic figures in these videos). However, the airlines expect the rigor of the training around policies to compensate for the utter lack of empowerment. In any of those situations, had employees been permitted to apply any modicum of common sense to do right by customers, without endangering the safety of others, I’m confident they would have done so, at little expense to their bottom line and quite to the benefit of their reputation. Instead you get a situation where a supervisor is not able to authorize a $90 shuttle ride from SJC to SFO, which would have pacified me, a loyal, points-collecting, tweeting customer who just spent $2,000 on tickets and writes a blog on human performance issues.

Time has passed since the days of Pan Am, when flying was an enjoyable and I daresay glamourous experience.  In the decades since then, the churn of the world, including oil embargoes, terrorist attacks, and task automation, has contributed to the increasingly dehumanizing experience that is air travel today. As much as airlines tout the customer experience, employees in these service catastrophes are put in a terrible position amid a system that doesn’t share their values. The cynical apologies, often blaming their own customers, portray a maddening tone-deafness. Hope for positive change driven by the industry is slim. Public activism via the cell phone video may help turn the tide.

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