Customer unhappiness and how to create it. A masterclass by Emirates


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Before I even start this article, I must make it clear that Emirates are not the only airline to make customers unhappy. In fact, they are far from being alone in any industry around the world at creating masterclasses in customer dissatisfaction. The airline industry does seem to excel at providing examples of shocking and inhumane treatment of people – the very people who hand over large sums of money to use their products and services. Only last week, the unofficial ‘champions’ of customer unhappiness, United Airlines, hit the headlines AGAIN – this time for ordering a passenger to put their dog in an overhead locker (yes, you did read that correctly). The dog very sadly died during the flight – you can read about this awful incident here.

In the interests of balance, I also want to clarify that unhappiness is not always the fault of the airlines. Being a regular traveller, I have witnessed the very worst human nature has to offer. Nothing gives the right for a human being to treat others with disdain and contempt – whatever the circumstances. In February, a woman was ejected from a Delta airlines flight after quite viciously complaining about sitting next to a mother and her baby. On this occasion, the customer was most definitely NOT in the right – you can read about it here.

The thing about air travel, is that it is a customer experience rife with stress. Many people fly infrequently. The time bound, rule laden experience can be daunting and scary. For those who fly all the time, it can be a frustrating, time sapping experience – and that is when it works!! For these reasons, it SHOULD be an experience that is delivered with care, understanding and empathy. Travelling is tiring – it is physically and mentally draining. Customers expect to interact with organisations who appreciate this – sadly, all too often, the reality is quite the opposite.

This is not the first article I have written about Emirates – in 2015, I wrote an article entitled, ‘The Epic Failings of Emirates’ – In it, I said I would never fly with Emirates again – maybe I should have stuck to that statement!! Just a quick scan online demonstrates that Emirates create unhappiness on a regular basis – the fact that there is a Facebook page entitled, ‘Emirates Unsatisfied Customers’ with almost 3,000 followers is the case in point! Many of the posts to that page state that Emirates ‘do not care’ about their customers. This perception is quite a contrast to this image on the Emirates website:

‘Comfort and attention to detail you can rely on whenever you travel’. ‘The Emirates Experience puts you first’. If I were to highlight ‘rely on whenever you travel’ AND ‘puts you first’, the story I am about to share could not be further from the truth. Brace yourselves for a masterclass in how to create unhappiness…

Friday 16th February 2018

At the end of a long hard working week in Johannesburg, I was looking forward to my usual travelling routine. Anyone who has had been at the receiving end of a presentation from me will know that I have a soft spot for a gin and tonic!! On my return from a week away, finding the nearest lounge or bar at the airport I am departing from is my standard ‘treat’. As I dozed off in my taxi on the way to O.R. Tambo airport, I could almost taste the gin. The buzzing of my phone woke me from my slumber.

My first thought was one of frustration. I was tired – the thought of having to spend 5 hours at the airport did not fill me with joy – although it did mean I would have the chance to quaff one or two more gins! It was also slightly annoying that no explanation for the delay was given – I doubt that any airline does. However, as a regular traveller, I know that these things happen. So when I arrived at the airport, I was actually MORE relaxed than usual – there was absolutely no rush for me to get through the airport ‘process’!

At check in, I was told that there was a ‘problem with the aircraft’. I thought nothing of it – as I made my way to the Emirates lounge (which I am lucky enough to be able to use), I had mentally adjusted to the long wait ahead.

Throughout my stay in the lounge, no announcements were made. None at all. At 23:30, bored of sitting around, I thought I would take a leisurely walk to the gate. When I got there, it looked more like a campsite than a departure gate at an airport. Passengers were asleep everywhere! Small bottles of water were being handed out by the staff – most of whom were representatives of the handling agent, Bidvest. I found a seat by the window and was pleased to see our aircraft in position. However, what I also noticed is that there appeared to be no activity around the aircraft whatsoever. Cargo was lined up neatly beside it. The cockpit was empty and not a human was to be seen anywhere on the ground.

At Midnight, I started to suspect that something was not quite right. There was still no sign of the crew – a sure sign that an aircraft is going nowhere. At 12:15, I entered the flight number into Google (a simple way of getting the latest status of any flight). Google showed a departure time of 03:00!! The information boards still said 01:00. I was not the only passenger to notice.

Slowly but surely, passengers started to approach the desk at the gate, Voices started being raised – naturally concerned passengers were now worried about their connecting flights. At this point, not a single communication was made to passengers – nothing. As the posse around the desk grew, so did the frustration levels of passengers AND staff. On more than one occasion, the staff from the handling agent could be heard saying, ‘I do not work for Emirates, it has nothing to do with me’. Not a great thing to say to worried, angry, stressed, tired passengers.

At various points, three members of Emirates staff, in Emirates uniform, were visible. At no point did any of them even attempt to say anything to passengers. For the majority of the time, they were non-existent, leaving the handling agent to pick up the pieces. At 01:00, finally the information boards confirmed that the flight was indeed now due to depart at 03:00. Still no announcement.

At this point, my patience had run out. I decided to return to the lounge. I was considering asking if I could rebook onto a different flight. I was not the only one. As I got to the lounge, a similar posse of passengers was surrounding the two Emirates staff at the reception desk.

Apparently, on my walk back to the lounge, Emirates had taken the decision to delay the flight until 15:00 on the 17th March – 16 hours and 40 minutes AFTER the scheduled departure time. Chaos was ensuing. The Emirates staff were advising passengers to walk BACK to the gate!! Fortunately, a member of staff from the handling agent appeared to advise us to stay where we were. We were advised that hotels had been arranged for us, but we would have to go through passport control and collect our luggage first – standard protocol in these cases.

This lady took us on a long walk back to passport control. On arrival at passport control, the immigration staff were fast asleep!! The lady behind the desk I approached was spread out across two chairs under a blanket!! No-one had bothered to tell them that around 300 passengers were about to descend!! I found out later that morning, that many of the passengers on this particular flight had entered South Africa on one trip visas – they were NOT permitted access back into South Africa. As a result, those who were lucky managed to share rooms at the small transit hotel in the airport. Others had to make do with the floor or benches.

Not needing a visa, I was fortunate to be allowed back in. The chaos was still in full flow though. There were only two members of staff from the handling agent on hand to help us. No one from Emirates was anywhere to be seen. These two ladies had absolutely no idea what to do. They seemed unclear where we were supposed to get our luggage. They were unclear how to divide the passengers to take them to the selected hotels. Tired, unhappy passengers were maintaining their composure, but things had turned into a scrum.

I was in a group of approximately forty passengers who were the first to make it out of the airport. We followed the handling agent across the road. In front of us was the Intercontinental Hotel – I was starting to breathe a sigh of relief – until she walked us straight past the hotel, towards a bus station behind it! There was one thing missing at the bus station……. busses! A man appeared and advised her that the busses were parked outside the terminal!! Another scrum ensued as now angry passengers started to run back to the terminal.

I then made an executive decision. I was faced with trying to get on a small bus to be taken to a hotel that could be anywhere. It was now 02:00 in the morning – I faced not getting to sleep for a long time. So I decided, along with another passenger, to take myself to the Intercontinental. I was quite prepared to pay for a room myself. I just wanted some sleep!

As I was checking in, first class passengers arrived behind me. They were NOT happy. The staff at the Intercontinental had not even been contacted by Emirates – they had no idea. I spoke to other passengers who were taken to other hotels. They confirmed the same thing – none of the hotels had been told by Emirates that passengers were coming. Some passengers did not get to a hotel room until 05:00!!! I finally got to bed at 03:00. I was just delighted to get some sleep.

Throughout all of this, I had received nothing from Emirates, other than my initial SMS on Friday evening. At 05:00, I did receive another SMS advising me that the flight had been changed to 15:00 – I was advised to check in at 12:00. No apology. No communication. Nothing.

I woke up not feeling particularly confident that the flight would actually depart. I decided to get to the terminal at 11:00 – just in case. This is what faced me:

Mayhem. Emirates have a scheduled departure every day at 14:00. They now had an unscheduled departure at 15:00 as well. Yet they were attempting to check in twice the amount of people with the same number of desks as usual. There was not a single member of Emirates staff to be seen. Once again, the handling agents were left to fend for themselves.

When I did eventually get to check in, the handling agent was not particularly sympathetic – the first she said to me is that she was tired!!! She was not even on duty when the debacle was unfolding the night before. From this point on, it was almost as though the previous evening had not happened. Not a single member of staff apologised. No acknowledgement of the situation was made.

Even as we finally boarded the aircraft 17 hours later than planned, even the crew did not acknowledge what passengers had been through. The pilot did apologise – for the delay. He stated that our safety was Emirates prime concern. Of that I have no doubt. What the pilot did not even attempt to understand is what happened to his passengers during the delay – why would he, when he and the other crew were tucked up in their hotel throughout the entire episode.

Usually, as a Gold card holder with Emirates, the purser introduces themselves to me – not this time – maybe she was scared of my reaction. I was hoping when we landed in Dubai that maybe we would be greeted by apologetic and understanding Emirates staff. Who was I kidding. We landed as though nothing had ever happened.

In a city that aspires to be the worlds ‘happiest’, its flagship airline had provided a masterclass in what it takes to create ‘unhappiness’. Not once did Emirates take care to consider their passengers. Not once did anyone think about the lady travelling alone with a baby. The elderly passengers who just seemed scared and confused. The working passengers who were now not going to be able to make their meetings. The holiday makers who were embarking on their trip of a lifetime. The travellers who were due to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in London with family. The people who were due to attend a wedding. I could go on.

These things happen – things always go wrong. Yet it is the way an organisation deals with things going wrong that makes the difference. I tried to contact Emirates the following day to find out how I can receive compensation. As a result of the delay, I lost a days worth of paid work. It took me a while to get through to them. I was told that 60,000 miles had been allocated to my skywards account. Was anyone planning to tell me? Do I have a choice in the matter? Do I even want the miles?!

I still have not received an apology. I suspect no-one else has either. I still have a choice of airlines – this may well be the final straw as far as Emirates is concerned. I genuinely hope that someone from the organisation reads this. We will not have been the only flight ever to be cancelled – yet it very much appeared as though we were. I plead with Emirates – and the entire aviation industry for that matter – to remember that they are in the business of providing a service to human beings – not cattle. They need to refocus not just on the customer experience, but on the human experience. Maybe then they will have a chance of providing masterclasses in creating happiness.

The post Customer unhappiness and how to create it. A masterclass by Emirates appeared first on I J Golding.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ian Golding, CCXP
A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked globally across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals deploying CX tools and methodologies. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) Authorised Resource & Training Provider.


  1. Hi Ian,
    Have you ever tried to contact someone from Icelandair? It is almost impossible. I had booked a flight via a travel agency this year and as my mother had not informed me that her firstname was spelled wrongly in her passport, I had to change this setting, because the name on the ticket and the name in the passport have to match 100%. The travel agency told me that they cannot change this setting and that I had to contact Icelandair myself. So I tried first via phone. The line was so busy that I was nr. 65 in the row to get served. So I waited, and got kicked out of the system 3 times while waiting and of course also lost my space every time…. all in all I spend 4 hours on the phone. I then tried Messenger, which they offered and that they promised that you should get an answer within one hour. I never received a reply. I tried the email contact form. I did get an automated reply message with a ticket number for my case. But to this day never received a reply. I tried to login with my flight number to change the data, but as I had not booked with Icelandair myself, I was not allowed to do it. I then so lost it, that I really made my research and contacted not only the CEO, the Customer Experience Manager (apparently they have one) and the Customer Care Manager…. I only do this, if I really get annoyed. Still my request was factually and politely set down and all I asked was to please be contacted. I was again ignored. I finally got up very early in the morning and tried phone again and after half an hour I reached a very polite lady that helped me with my request. I did not make a fuss with her, as she was really nice. I still though contacted the CEO etc. again to let them know that my request was solved, but that I still would like to be contacted to discuss the matter. They never replied. Result – I will never fly with Icelandair again and will tell everyone not to use this airline if they can avoid it. I really hope my flight will not be a desaster, because if it is, I will become Icelandairs biggest nightmare and post on every social media channel that I can find, write bloggs about it and mention it where ever I can. And why? All I wanted was to change a name on my mothers ticket.

  2. Wow Karin – thank you so much for sharing your story – I am so sorry you had to experience that. Sadly, it is yet another example of how much of the aviation industry seems to be wildly removed from understanding the reality of the customer journey. I can only hope that as more stories are shared publicly, leadership of those airlines continually failing their customers will finally wake up, listen and act!


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