When customer service breaks down, we become irritated, angry, even enraged. Service professionals know the reaction cycle all too well: customers perceive they’re wronged. They fume. They tell twenty other people. Then, they get over it. Life goes on. Except when it doesn’t.
Last week, a tragic customer service debacle involving American Airlines resulted in a passenger’s death. There’s little controversy that the outcome was preventable. But as the story continues to unfold, figuring out who—or what—to blame is proving much more difficult. Was it the passenger? Her family? American Airlines? Airport staff? Poignantly, the result—a life needlessly lost—doesn’t change.
On Friday, May 3 around 4 pm, an 83-year old woman named Victoria Kong arrived at Washington’s Reagan National Airport on American Airlines flight 1094 from Miami. She began her trip the same day from Barbados, a journey she had made at least ten times before. Her daughter was waiting for her in the arrival area, but they never found each other. Airport surveillance video shows Mrs. Kong exiting the terminal through a door at 4:12 pm, never to return. Her body was discovered on Monday, May 6th, in a wooded area 200 yards from the airport property, just off the heavily-used bike trail that runs from Washington, DC to Mount Vernon, Virginia. According to police, there were no signs of foul play. What went wrong?
Mrs. Kong was cognitively impaired, and was likely experiencing early signs of Alzheimer’s. Her family was aware of her condition, and had taken steps to ensure that she receive assistance for her trip, according to a May 9th article in The Washington Post. “Kong’s family had arranged for wheelchair service with American Airlines, and an agent helped Kong get to her flight. Relatives said they had requested that American take Kong directly to and from her seat, but the airline said the family requested only service to the gate—a detail that would later prove tragic.”
When Mrs. Kong deplaned in Washington, she evidently walked past the American gate agent sent to escort her to baggage claim. The agent held an electronic sign with Kong’s name, but it remains unclear whether Ms. Kong did not see the sign, or was confused about who was supposed to meet her. Video footage provided to investigators indicates that she “was not visibly in distress or disoriented.”
Meanwhile, as passengers from flight 1094 gathered in baggage claim, Mrs. Kong’s daughter became increasingly concerned about her mother. She contacted American but was given conflicting information. At one point she was told that her mother was still at the gate. She inquired at the ticket counter, and had her mother paged. Subsequently she was told that an agent was with her mother in the bathroom. “American Airlines officials said that they never told [Mrs. Kong's daughter] her mother was in their custody. In a statement Wednesday, May 8, the airline said that it responded with ‘appropriate care and concern to Mrs. Kong’s family,’” according to the news report. By 6 pm, almost two hours after Mrs. Kong deplaned in Washington, her daughter contacted the airport police.
There’s terrible irony, because the solutions we’re already pioneering to save taxpayer money for operating prisons could also have helped save Mrs. Kong. Information technology has improved to the point where we can “imagine a virtual incarcerations system that uses advanced risk modeling, geospatial analytics, smartphone technology and principles from the study of human behavior to achieve superior outcomes,” a 2013 Deloitte report, Beyond the Bars, proclaims. “That smartphones allow us to imprison twice the number of people at half the cost is the kind of cutting edge innovation that only management consultants and tech entrepreneurs would be excited about,” Evgeny Morozov wrote in The New York Times (Imprisoned by Innovation, March 24, 2013). Count me in. Why not use the same technologies for helping cognitively-impaired adults navigate airports, train stations, and bus depots, and keep them from wandering astray?
We can. And we should. But this tragedy was not caused by inadequate technology. It was caused by poor communication, and a lack of understanding about how to identify people with cognitive disabilities, and to provide them with the right services. Safely, dependably, and repeatedly. Something we already do for thousands of unaccompanied minors traveling through airports every day, including the world’s busiest.
But we’re just learning how to contend with adults who need help, but who might not display any outward signs of confusion, anxiety, or dementia. It’s a complex matter to solve, and one that involves the combined expertise of geriatric specialists, psychologists, social workers, architects and engineers, information technologists, operations executives, and public safety workers.
An early step requires defining precisely what cognitive impairment is, and clearly, consistently and unambiguously communicating with the right people at the right time about what to do in specific situations. For now, if people have concerns about a friend or family member’s ability to navigate a trip, a spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Association, Susan Kudla Finn, recommends having him or her travel with a companion.
Hospitals and senior centers understand these challenges, though they might struggle with implementation. But across many industries, customer service organizations must adapt—and quickly. With baby boomers entering the ranks of America’s senior population, the number of people at risk grows every day.