Maggots On A Plane: A Tale Of Service Recovery


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No, we’re not talking today about the latest horror flick from Hollywood, some ill-advised sequel to 2006’s “Snakes On A Plane.” We’re talking about the memorable journey of U.S. Airways Flight 1537, from Atlanta, Georgia to Charlotte, North Carolina, on June 29, 2010.

As you may have heard from national press reports, this flight was forced to report a minor emergency when maggots (yes, you read that right) starting dropping from the overhead baggage compartments onto unsuspecting travelers seated below. The flight returned to the Atlanta airport terminal, where passengers were asked to deplane and leave their carry-on bags behind.

A HazMat team boarded the plane and ultimately found that the maggots were coming from a container of rotting meat brought on by a U.S. Airways passenger.

So why the blog post about this? Well, I happened to be a passenger on this flight and got a first-hand look at U.S. Airways’ handling of the incident. It offers numerous lessons about how any business should recover from service failures.

Don’t Leave Home Without Your Rotting Meat

When I travel, I too like to bring along rotting meat for the ride (don’t you?). But not putting it in a sealed container – what was this passenger thinking?

U.S. Airways was unlucky that day. They did nothing to trigger this awful incident, other than sell a ticket to a complete moron. Unfortunately, as U.S. Airways learned here, it doesn’t matter if a service failure is triggered by no fault of the company. The incident – and especially the company’s response to it – will still reflect back on the firm.

And so, even though the airline bore no responsibility for bringing the maggots aboard, how they responded to the situation revealed a lot about their attentiveness to the customer experience. So how did they do? Well, let’s just say that their handling of the incident bugged me.

The impact to passengers on this flight was significant; this was no minor inconvenience:

First, there is the gross out factor. Folks, we’re talking about maggots dropping onto the heads of passengers. Air travel is inhuman these days, but this was over the top.

Second, the flight was ultimately delayed over two hours, causing most passengers to miss their connections.

Third, there was that lingering question on many passengers’ minds, “what might have crawled into my carry-on bag?” Bring some larvae home with you and this U.S. Airways flight becomes the gift that keeps on giving.

Recovering Gracefully From Service Failure

The paradox of service recovery is that, if done well, you can actually create a more loyal customer than would have otherwise been the case. U.S. Airways didn’t capitalize on this opportunity, but if you learn from their mistakes, maybe you can do better when your business suffers a service failure. Keep these five tips in mind as you approach your own service recoveries:

1. Apologize. When something goes wrong with your customer experience, be quick and genuine in apologizing. Even if the failure was due to something out of your control, focus less on explaining that to your customer and more on making them whole. While the U.S. Airways crew offered a standard apology “for the inconvenience” at the conclusion of the flight, it took NINE days for the airline’s corporate office to send an e-mail apology to the affected passengers.

2. Set expectations. Make sure your customer clearly understands how and when the service failure will be remedied. Ambiguity here will only fan the flames of discontent. Once passengers deplaned off of Flight 1537, they were left in the dark about the status of their flight for far too long.

3. Execute flawlessly. Whatever it takes to recover from the failure, make sure those steps are executed flawlessly. If customers see you stumble again when trying to make them whole, it’s just another nail in your brand’s coffin. When Flight 1537 finally arrived in Charlotte a few hours late, passengers had to wait over ten minutes just to get off the plane. There was a delay in getting airport personnel to extend the jet bridge – perhaps a tolerable oversight under normal circumstances, but an unacceptable one in this scenario. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Airways apology e-mail was riddled with formatting errors and company jargon. It looked like it was haphazardly pasted together from pre-existing templates at the last minute, even though it took nine days to release. When dealing with service failure, leave nothing to chance. Make sure the recovery is perfectly orchestrated.

4. Communicate quickly and genuinely. Imagine if U.S. Airways had sent an apology e-mail to all Flight 1537 passengers while the plane was in the air en route to Charlotte. Upon landing, people would have switched on their smartphones and seen a note from an airline executive, complete with an apology, instructions for getting to their final destination, and a flight voucher (of material value) to compensate flyers for the inconvenience. Now that would’ve been impressive.

5. Make customers better than whole. On the positive side, recognizing that so many passengers were going to miss their connecting flights, U.S. Airways proactively rebooked customers and had their new boarding pass waiting for them upon Flight 1537’s arrival in Charlotte. That was a good step in making them whole, but not enough. Due to the delay, many passengers had to shell out for dinner at the airport, yet the airline offered no meal vouchers. Plus, in its belated apology letter, U.S. Airways offered a relatively meager travel voucher that likely did little to shift customer perceptions. When recovering from service failure, go above and beyond to make customers whole. Even if it means taking a loss on that particular interaction, you’ll come out ahead in the long run with a more compelling, buzzworthy and loyalty-inducing service recovery.

Manage The Water Cooler Conversation

Service failures (particularly those involving maggots!) are water cooler worthy events. They’re the type of stories people like to share with others, over the kitchen table, in the office, at a cocktail party… or in a blog post.

In this example, U.S. Airways had an opportunity to shift the focus of those water cooler conversations, getting customers to dwell less on the disgusting, maggot part of the story and at least as much (if not more) on the company’s response.

But in this case, with a recovery that was lackluster at best, the airline failed to control the conversation – leaving customers with mostly bad memories… ones they’ll likely share with others.

Service failure is a part of any business, and it happens even to those companies that are legendary for their customer experience. But what separates good companies from great ones is how they react to such failures. Choreograph a response to service failure that dazzles and you’ve got a good chance of emerging on the other side with a stronger brand and more loyal customers.

And, when traveling, please remember to keep your rotting meat in a sealed container.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jon Picoult
As Founder of Watermark Consulting, Jon Picoult helps companies impress customers and inspire employees. An acclaimed keynote speaker, Jon’s been featured by dozens of media outlets, including The Wall St Journal and The New York Times. He’s worked with some of the world’s foremost brands, personally advising CEOs and executive teams.Learn more at or follow Jon on Twitter.


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