A lot is written about the importance of customer-centricity and customer experience. Research by Watermark Consulting shows that companies that provide better customer experience create a better total stock market return that the S&P 500 and customer experience laggards. Thus many companies tout their focus on this area.
The airlines are no exception. Often now as part of their pre-flight video there will be a message from the CEO about how important the passenger/customer is to the company. (Unfortunately these videos often run at the same time the flight crew is demonstrating the exact opposite.)
The one area of the airline industry that appears totally immune to customer experience and customer-centricity is ground operations. I was reminded of this again recently while flying American Airlines from San Francisco to Chicago.
We left SFO about 30 minutes late and made up most of the time, but then had to sit in the penalty box on the tarmac due to a gate not being available. It was about 10pm. The pilot explained that due to weather the day had gone badly at O’Hare and that we would get a gate “soon.” Soon turned out to be 2 hours because they had to accommodate 16 planes. If you think about it, American Airlines at O’Hare moves more than 16 planes per hour during peak times. So needing to wait 2 hours to take care of 16 planes made no sense.
I emailed Customer Service to try to get an explanation about why they allowed people to go home so they would be only night-shift staffed when they clearly had lots of planes to deal with. The first response from Customer Service was the boiler plate “we are sorry for the inconvenience” letter. I emailed back that a boiler plate response was only making me madder. That got me another response saying they were not going to compensate me for the delay since it wasn’t their fault. I emailed back noting I was not looking for compensation, to re-read my complaint and please give an answer.
That got me a phone call (to my voice mail as I was out) telling me that ATC controls planes arrival and departure at O’Hare, and it was not their fault and no compensation would be forthcoming. I emailed back that again, I did not want compensation, had not asked for it, I just wanted an explanation for how they allowed themselves to be short-staffed. I suggested the agent simply drop the issue if he couldn’t get me an answer. That got another phone call, one where I could answer and talk.
He again tried to explain that ATC was responsible. I interrupted, as I often do, and noted that was impossible since the weather was clear and the airport was operating normally. They were simply and clearly short-staffed and I wondered why that had been allowed to happen. He kept giving me text-book responses. I told him that I was not blaming him I just wondered how OPs had allowed this short staff to happen. He tried to explain it was not predictable since ATC controls air traffic. I again noted that full airport ops had been up and running for hours and they knew exactly what planes of theirs were coming and when. So again I asked why AA Ground Ops had allowed this. That’s when he finally told me the truth:
AA Ground Ops was not going to explain it to him much less me.
They don’t answer to the customer … clearly.
We ended the call with him reciting the standard “thank you for flying…” I will say that the flight crew, especially the pilot, did a great job of keeping us updated even though, based on one of his nuanced announcements, Ground Ops had basically told him “don’t call us we’ll call you when we know when you can have a gate.”
It would be so much more refreshing if they just followed the Lily Tomlin Saturday Live skit from many years ago and said “We don’t care. We don’t have to.”