More “Worst Practices” in the Airline World


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Contrary to appearances, I’m really not blogging about airlines; I’m blogging about customer-centricity. But travel is such a big part of our lives, it seems hard to avoid talking about our airline encounters. Maybe it’s just that many airlines provide such good material – at least when it comes to “worst practices.”

Last week I wrote about how badly the world’s largest airline handles customer communications via email. This week’s subject is one of the world’s newer airlines, which is supposed to provide a better customer experience as well as a lower cost than legacy carriers like American, United and Delta. I have to report that while JetBlue is offering big savings – I spent half of what AA or UA charges to travel from the West to the East Coast last week – the experience leaves much to be desired. In fact, I’ll only fly this carrier as a last resort from now on.

Warning: this may be a bit long for a blog. But to make a long story as short as possible, I arrived at JFK early, and thought I’d try to get on an earlier flight home. I’d already checked in and had my boarding pass for the later flight in hand. I went to the departure gate for the earlier flight, where I waited five minutes for the gate agent to appear. He told me he couldn’t help; I’d have to go to the service center.

At the service center a surly woman (even by New York standards) listened to my request and wordlessly printed out a boarding pass for the earlier flight. One catch: it was standby. I told her if I had to stand by, I would rather keep my confirmed seat on the later flight. She said I could confirm a seat on the early flight for a $25 fee. Given what airlines charge these days, I consider that a bargain, and told her I’d gladly pay it. I politely mentioned that had she given me that option in the first place, I’d have chosen it and saved her some trouble. She looked at me. “We don’t take cash,” she said. I said I wasn’t planning to pay cash, and handed her my American Express card. But she missed the handoff, dropping my card into a deep, dark recess behind her computer terminal.

She told me now I would probably not make the earlier flight.

Just then I spotted a supervisor. I could tell he was in charge, because he was obviously trying to avoid my eye. I told him I was having a service issue and needed some help. His first words: “I didn’t see what happened.” I explained the situation and he actually apologized, and called airport services to come and try to retrieve my card. While waiting for the maintenance guy, I asked the woman who’d been “helping” me to print out a boarding pass for the later flight. She said she would see if any seats were available. I told her my original seat had better be available, and she actually gave me a boarding pass for my original flight and seat.

Time passed.

Eventually my credit card was retrieved. I then asked the woman, “I don’t suppose I should bother asking you again if I can get on the earlier flight?” She started typing and came up with a window seat on the earlier flight. I asked her if I needed to pay the $25. She said that it was OK, she would waive the fee.

I hate to be so thick, but if she was empowered to accommodate me as she ultimately did, why did she put me through hell first? Why should this frontline employee go out of her way to lose a customer? This incident is one more proof point that no matter the quality of strategic thinking; no matter the creativity in designing customer relationship programs; and no matter the sophistication of the technology eployed to support customer relationships, it is all wasted if customer-facing employees deliver a poor experience.

In our practice, one of our mantras is, “It is no harder to do the right thing than it is to do the wrong thing.” But that’s obviously a lesson JetBlue has yet to learn.

With all the opportunity this newer carrier has had to change the rotten paradigm of the U.S. airline industry, I guess we’ll have to wait a little longer for some upstart airline to give us customers some genuine respect, some real choice, and a decent travel experience at a fair price.


  1. Howard

    Been there. Got that T-shirt. I think I have even been in that film!

    But the question is whether how the woman responded was a result of who she is, or of who she works for. Most people are pretty OK out of work. Most are pretty OK at work too. But a few people are so poorly lead, poorly managed, even poorly administered at work that there is no wonder that they don’t want to help.

    If you are told to be nice to customers BUT that there are rules which mandate how much you can give back to customers in recompense for a service failure, in which circumstances, and which three superiors have to countersign the payment, then there should be no suprise that great service goes undelivered.

    I described a simple framework to look at these service quality dynamics in more details in an earlier post on Customer Service: Dr Jekyll Versus Mr Hyde.

    Like the title of the book, ” a fish rots from its head”.

    Graham Hill

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Graham. I always hold management responsible at some level. Sometimes the problem is at the specific/departmental/individual training level; sometimes it is the overall culture fostered (or allowed to fester). Either way, management is responsible for setting policies, teaching implementation, rewarding performance, and most of all, leading by example.


  3. Take it down a level of analysis or so and there are two fundamental forces at play: 1) management isn’t aware of half of the things customers face on a daily basis or 2) they’re aware but have no idea how to begin to evaluate/solve/prioritize/address any of them. While both are likely to be involved, in major company after major company, #1 is the predominant factor.

    The 2.0 era changes this. We now have the Channel-of-One and the collective of the connectedness between voices (ala. the Borg). There are several of us trying to get AT&T’s attention over recent changes in the corresponding email experience (managed by Yahoo! — All of the ‘partnershipping’ and ‘outsourcing’ going on leaves for gaping holes in the parts and pieces. The stuff of relationships is something that fundamentally NO ONE is responsible for at any given organization.

    Even if you can name one, or even a handful, how statistically significant is that in the field of businesses and the dollars associated with the relationships both individually and collectively?


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