Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Airlines Can Learn from the Railroads

Travel was never easy and delays en route have always been a characteristic of travel.

The issue is--how does the travel operator handle the risk?

If it's an airline--nothing. Although people have checked in for a flight, or are sitting on a plane, and realize nothing is happening when it should (even the densest person can usually figure it out), flight attendants gossip with one another or engage in some similar behavior that ignores their customers and, more significantly, fails to acknowledge the obvious.

When the delay is a mechanical problem, airlines REALLY fail to share what's going on (because knowledgeable passengers know that, when the problem is mechanical, the airline is responsible for taking care of its passengers).

In a couple of instances, when bad weather forced the airplane to land at another location, the airlines did not even tell us we were being diverted until we were in the process of landing the plane.

If they're not sharing information, it's almost guaranteed that the airlines won't share complimentary drinks, snacks, or anything else while passengers wait and grow increasingly restless.

(One person tried to tell me that flight attendants are not there for customer service; they're there for safety. Although airline regulations might indeed require that, when someone is serving coke and asking me to consider their airline for my next trip--that person is giving the impression flight attendants are there for customer service and, thus, set up that expectation. So airlines should not be surprised that passengers expect customer service from flight attendants.)

I recently experienced a delay on a train that shows me how airlines SHOULD handle a delay.

First, they kept passengers informed throughout. As soon as a problem arose and they had an understanding of what it was, the staff made an announcement.

Soon afterwards, the staff served both complimentary coffee and snacks. (Usually, these are for sale.)

When the delay went beyond a half-hour, they offered all passengers discounts on a future train ticket. Through ongoing announcements (about every 10 to 15 minutes), staff kept passengers informed. (OK, I can't say I liked the news that the delay was extended, but would rather the staff be honest about it than pretend like a situation that clearly existed, didn't. doesn't exist.)

At the end, they thanked us for our patience.

As my old boss used to say, it's not how you handle the day-to-day things that make a difference; it's how you handle the extraordinary things that establish excellence in customer service.