What I Learned From the Worst Flight Ever

So we all have those horrific travel stories – it is almost a badge of honor amongst those who travel often and invariably run into struggles associated with airports, hotels, or airlines.

I myself have a robust array of travel related anecdotes that highlight any number of service wins and misses – but most recently my patience was tested by an airline that I won’t name, but falls into what you might call the discount carrier group.

Now it’s important to note that I don’t write this to simply complain, but to shine a light on a situation that, in all honesty, could have happened to any of us.  If you depend on a team of leaders and front line associates to execute your vision, you are vulnerable to miscues like this.  If you don’t think you are vulnerable to service issues such as this, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment and your Customers for major aggravation.

If you keep in mind the worst that can happen in any service situation, the better prepared you can be to deal with, and train your team to adapt to, whatever may come.

I want to be clear that this is absolutely not Delta airlines.  I find them to the most efficient, friendly, and service-oriented airlines in the business today.  I have flown them around a hundred times and have never encountered more than a little turbulence.

Recently I was traveling to central Florida on a Friday afternoon flight to enjoy a long weekend with family.  My wife and I bailed on work a few hours early and dutifully arrived at the airport two hours before flight time.

At this point, the flight was delayed 20 minutes according to the travel board.

So through security we went and at the gate we arrived (by way of the terminal bar).

It was then that the first text message came through: we were now delayed 40 minutes.

The next delay we received, letting us know we were running an hour late, came in seven minutes after the flight was supposed to leave.

This did not instill confidence. This was mostly fueled by the gate agent, who made announcement saying that we should stop asking him questions because the text messages we were receiving were likely more informative than he could be. This fellow wasn’t being intentionally rude. He was clearly “green” and hadn’t been given any direction on how to handle the crowd. There wasn’t a Leader to be seen, so he and the ground crew were left to deal with the increasingly disgruntled Customers.

The takeaway here: Make sure that your team has scripting when things go wrong and information they can share with Customers. Also Leaders must be available to step in and communicate with Customers when things go sideways.

By the way, a few minutes later we received a text message saying that we were delayed by 90 minutes.

So the night went, little information and a delay that continued to grow.  The gate folks tried to placate the masses with free soda, which was nice but not nearly sufficient to please the weary travelers. A call to their Customer service line yielded nothing but condescension and learning that the only way to file a complaint was online. The close to the call was a snappy “Sir I don’t know what you expect me to do…at least we are getting you there.”

Or so she thought.

It turns out, after four hours and finally being boarded onto the plane, they canceled the flight. The broken fuel line and lingering stench of petrol in the cabin were more than the repair crew could handle. The bigger problem occurred once we were all off the plane and attention turned to what was next.  This is where communication really took a turn for the worse (as if we thought that was possible).  The team at the gate had to send us all to baggage claim to get our luggage and told us to line up at ticketing to make arrangements for a future flight.  Most of us have had this happen over the years, but in this case there were no other flights out that night and they only had one full flight the next day.

All they could do was read a prepared statement from “headquarters,” which basically said sorry about the broken plan and all, but we’ll have to let you know when you’ll be flying out.  They honestly couldn’t tell us when we would fly out or even when we would know when we would fly out; We would be contacted by phone or email with a time.  And with that we were asked to head on home.

Now we got the notice around 1 a.m. and we did get a flight the next afternoon about 24 hours after our original departure time.  And when we flew, the flight left on time and we made it to our destination safely.  So all-in-all, things could have been much worse.

I think it’s vitally important that we make sure that our teams know what to do when things go wrong and that they understand how important that initial communication is to Customers.  Make sure you practice with them, that you prepare them how to deal with irate Guests, and that they know exactly what to do.  It would also serve everyone very well to be sure that there was always a Leader on site to keep a hand on the wheel and eyes on the road.  Otherwise, you get this lord-of-the-flies type of situation where even the smallest hiccup can become a disaster.

The key to minimizing the impact of service issues to communicate, communicate, communicate.  This along with having a solid plan to correct and keeping an air of professionalism will help you keep your Customers calm and the situation from becoming even worse.  Remember, Customers are like horses, they can sense fear.  And once they become convinced that you are “inept,” there is very little you can do to change their minds.  Best to always keep an air of confidence and a get-it-done attitude that inspires faith.

For tips on handling SERVICE RECOVERY, check out my earlier post on the L.E.A.R.N. model.

Until next time, be sure to treat those Customers like the most cherished of friends.

Tony Johnson
Customer Service Expert | Author | Trainer | Speaker

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About The Author

Tony Johnson

I’m a 22 year veteran of delivering terrific Guest experiences. I believe in putting the Customer at the center of what we do everyday. . .Let’s face it, if we take great care of our Guests, the rest just falls into place.