Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Airline News

Kentucky man demonstrates customer service experience

I'm hesitant to add more words to the trillions that have been shared around the world after US airline United caused a passenger to be rendered insensible and dragged off a flight by three police officers. If you have by any chance been hiding in a nuclear bunker for the last 72 hours, 69 year old Dr David Dao was travelling home from Chicago to Kentucky on a United Airlines flight on Sunday and refused to give up his seat when instructed to do so by the crew. They called the police, who removed him forcibly.

United's blundering mismanagement of the entire incident reads like an text book on how to create a global PR fail of such magnificent proportions that it wipes $800 million off a company's stock price - which is precisely what it has achieved.

Although it would appear everyone was told the situation was due to 'overbooking', in fact United needed four seats to fly its own crew out to staff another flight. It had managed to screw up its own rostering to the point where it had to try and get people already boarded on a flight to agree to give up their seats. It offered $400 compensation, then $800 - which Dao agreed to and then rescinded his agreement when he found out the next available flight was 2.30pm the next day.

Of course, it's easier to say 'As the flight has been overbooked we are offering passengers...' in a tannoy than 'As we have goofed up our rostering and have four unexpected dead heads, we are offering passengers...'

United's consistent use of obfuscation and mendacity is only part of the whole glorious and potent mixture of incompetent communications that led them to become an object of global opprobrium. With a video of a bloody and unconscious man being dragged down the aisle of the plane being shared by millions, the company's CEO said this was 're-accommodating' passengers. The company also said that Dr Dao - a man torn from his seat on a plane - had been 'refused boarding'.

Dao is currently being smeared across mainstream media, a sad incident from his past being dragged up to show us that this seemingly innocent Doctor is actually a gay sex fiend who was struck off for ten years and earned a fortune playing poker instead of doctoring. We'll likely find out he was horrible to hamsters and kittens, too. United has finally, and this is Wednesday, made a full and proper apology - something it should have done at the latest by Monday but, in our Twitter-driven world, really Sunday was the time to react. It would seem United has either engaged an agency or started listening to its incumbent.

But the late reaction is too scripted, too late and follows an initial and very different reaction. Result? It lacks the one thing we know is the most important element of communications in today's environment: authenticity. They don't sound like they mean it and that's precisely because they don't mean it. United has consistently made it clear that Dao was an inconvenient trouble-maker because he didn't do what they told him to do and wanted him to do.

Is United responsible for smearing Dao? It's hard to tell, really, the smear has certainly made the 'innocent passenger' narrative more complex but it has also prolonged the coverage of the whole sorry incident. And with every new story, we have a chance to replay that video of a man being dragged from his seat - bought, paid for and occupied with every expectation of being able to fly home that night - and pulled off a plane like a sack of spuds.

For me, currently engaged in an arbitration case against British Airways, the story has particular resonance. Airlines are big businesses and the regulation of their behaviour would appear to be particularly lax. They are routinely lying about their flight times to avoid charges of delay (have you noticed how yesterday's 45 minute flight has become today's 90 minute flight?), using reasons of security to mask operational convenience and generally treating passengers pretty woefully. The first line of response is reasonably consistently to take refuge in obfuscation and filibustering, using a variety of means to disempower consumers. We are all sausages, lining up to be squeezed compliantly into the sausage machine.

It's remarkable how falling standards in aviation customer service and comportment have become the norm rather than the rule. BA's descent from the world's proudest national carrier to a sub-Ryan Air low cost carrier has been pretty meteoric. A sort of flying Nokia.

The exceptions to that rule are, of course, finding that being better than that pays off. That consumers will avoid (showing remarkable lethargy when it comes to making active choices to change) the bad airlines and gravitate to the good guys. It's where the Gulf 'feeder flight' carriers have made such inroads.

And it's going to be hard to see United waving the flag for 'good ole Amerikay first' when it comes to competing with the Gulf airlines, continuing that lobbying effort to have the Gulfies throttled to support American airlines. Their service standards being already notoriously low, beating up your customers really does set a new standard.

United will be reassuring itself that the news cycle will move on and this, like all things, will pass. they won't change, not one jot, despite their CEO's belated and PR-penned promises. It'll be interesting to see, when the online howls have died down, how many consumers vote with their feet in the weeks to come...

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