Everyone has a “worst flight ever” story—whether or not they travel frequently. This was mine. (Actually, my worse flight ever never actually took off, but that’s another United story, literally: Here’s the shortest summary I could come up with:
In Chicago, I’m waiting for a connecting flight for Washington Reagan. The flight is due to DC at 9 pm. The flight is delayed, and the captain says there are thunderstorms in DC and the airport is closed to traffic.
Thirty minutes later, the captain says we are flying to Washington Dulles, as National is closed for the night (at 10:30 pm, due to noise restrictions). But he adds that Dulles also is closed due to the weather. Flight attendant #1 gets on the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, you can deplane if you wish to grab a snack. Leave your belongings on board if you don’t need them. Please don’t go to the bar, since you won’t hear the reboarding announcement.” (Crowd chuckles, as that’s exactly where they’re headed.)
Most of the passengers get up, while I opt to sip my friend called red wine.
Ten minutes later, flight attendant #2 says, “Ladies and gentlemen, she shouldn’t have said you can deplane without taking your carry-on belongings. It’s a security risk. Now we all need to leave the plane with your belongings, and then we’ll reboard.” (Insert angry passenger noises here. Hadn’t we—and our stuff—already cleared security?)
Then, this from flight attendant #3: “Folks, I’m sorry for that last announcement. That might be the Continental way. Everyone stay put for now—I don’t think you have to leave the plane.” Then, to a group of passengers near me, he added, “We’re going to lose customers with policies like that.”
The captain later referees the match. “We have confirmed that yes, we do all have to leave the plane. But you can leave your belongings.” A passenger says loudly (to no one in particular), “What’s the reason we have to get off? To avoid an officially late flight by FAA rules?”
The fun continues off the plane. Gate attendant A: “Okay folks, we’re going to reboard the plane.” Gate attendant B (to A): “What do you mean? Board to actually leave? Or board to just board?”
“Board to leave,” says A, laughing at the question. (I thought it was a perfectly reasonable question myself.)
We leave Chicago and land at Dulles at 12:15 a.m. There is cryptic information from a flight attendant about “two busses meeting you at gate 7 on arrival level to take you to National,” which is 45 minutes away.
The captain apologizes for the missing jetway operator. The jetway itself is 10 yards away and we passengers are ready to jump. A guy in a suit runs around the nose of the plane three times—quite like those funny fire drills. We then spot him at the jetway controls. But clearly he’s not trained for this.
The guy in suit gets the jetway to the plane, but not actually to a door. He gets help and finds a door—20 minutes later. We’re off. But the fun has just started.
The baggage area is mayhem because guess what, other flights were diverted here as well. Lost, tired and confused families are in a tizzy. The line for United’s lost baggage office is a 90-minute wait, we are told in a loud voice by a crisply dressed United guy in a suit (maybe the jetway operator) who otherwise wasn’t helping anyone. Some bags from our flight emerge, but not mine, and most are missing.
I find the free United bus to National, but no one can tell me if my bag is on the bus, at Dulles, at National, or elsewhere. After more searching and more crying families, I still can’t find the bag, so I head to the cab line, along with everyone else, apparently. The line, we are told, is 60 minutes long. I head for a Super Shuttle ride with a small crowd. I walk in my front door at 3:35 a.m., six hours late.
Later that morning, I learn my bag indeed arrived the night before at National—at 8 pm, which is even before we left Chicago. Why wasn’t my butt itself on that earlier flight? And why couldn’t anyone tell me that on site? Arm some United folks—in suits—with scanners and they can roam around and help people. The guys at the big rental car firms do that when you return your rental, don’t they?
The same day, I receive in the mail a blue box from United. Inside is a card: “On behalf of Mileage Plus, we would like to thank and congratulate you on achieving the prestigious 1 Million Miler threshold. We greatly appreciate your continued loyalty and business, and look forward to serving you in the future.” I’m not sure what I have to look forward to.
Later, I see a headline in The Wall Street Journal, “United’s CEO Apologizes for Service Woes,” , but Mr. Smisek said nothing of staff training, which clearly is one of the woes. (The woes can’t just be the frequent flyer program or the reservation system.)
What do I make of all this?
- Employees are your most important brand ambassadors. A new logo or tagline alone doesn’t mean mean they’ll embrace the brand—whether you’re a global brand with tens of thousands of employees, or a one-location small business.
- My colleague Tony Wessling had an excellent post, “Ants and Elephants,” is a great read. I’d like to address what happens when an elephant (United) merges with another elephant (Continental).
- Anyone who travels a lot knows there are good days and bad. You just have to roll with it. However, I’m not talking here about Mother Nature. It’s hard to roll with it when people in charge make goofy decisions, or can’t make any decisions.
- Never underestimate the value of frequent, and consistent, communication to travelers every step of the way. Flights are late all the time—haven’t we learned anything from this over the years? Yeesh.
- If you are traveling in the summer in the Mid-Atlantic, take the first flight out—not the last.
Other than to tell me to chill out and get over it already—since my life wasn’t threatened by a bad flight—what lessons can you draw from this? Or from your bad travel day? Come on, I’m sure you can do better than my story!