Tuesday, August 14

Surviving US Airways: Social Connections


“…the surprising ease in which our brains interlock, spreading our emotions like a virus.” — Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.

As a writer and creative director, especially in the fast-paced profession of advertising with always urgent deadlines, I've understood the general concept of what Goleman calls social intelligence for some time.

I sometimes use it to remind account executives and others that negative reinforcement might teach mice to press bars for cheese, but it never did anything for creativity or teamwork. The designers will beat the deadline, I tell them, provided you stop asking them if they’ll meet it.

Emotions are like viruses. And communication is the way it spreads.

Being keenly aware of this, long before reading the first page of Goleman’s book (I picked up at the airport, where I was stranded, the morning after), perhaps it was easier for me not to succumb to the plague of negativity — worry, fear, anger, rage — that swept through the terminal the day before.

Instead, I focused on making alliances with like-minded people who seemed unaffected by the social disease caused mostly by US Airways employees. While I could have tuned it out as an observer, I opted for an inoculation of sorts, creating positive social connections that can make all the difference when you are destined to perform a mini-repeat performance of Tom Hanks in the movie The Terminal.

“That’s based on a true story,” insisted Stephan (from Sweden), who was stranded on his way to Dallas. (I didn’t know it, but he was right).

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Christina (from Germany), who was on her way home after studying at Duke University. “I never saw the movie.”

While our group originally numbered five in line, it was the three of us who spent the most time together, passing the evening hours in an airport bar that was packed with marooned passengers. For a few hours, communication was effortless as we traded observations about our respective cultures, ranging from Christina’s choice to study law in America or Latin in Europe and how the Seventies-spun infamy of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders is ever-present abroad to the growing Swedish presence in American hockey and why some Europeans think Baywatch exemplifies the American experience.

I’m thankful for these spontaneous friendships. It proved helpful when we waited in line together and even more so before heading off to find our respective sleeping arrangements — some empty terminal benches (some passengers flipped them on end to make temporary beds). Sure, there are plenty of tips I could pass out to help people deal with such a crisis, but the best advice is to seek out positive people (not those who want to focus on the horror of it all).

Had the US Airways passenger service agents known this, they too may have been better equipped to face the long line of rightfully concerned passengers who heard that the airline would offer no redemption whatsoever. Hmmm ... imagine how different it could have been had US Airways personnel at least understood that their communication had a greater impact on the passengers than the cancellations. Or that even the simplest service plan could have helped.

Demonstrate Empathy. When you have a 40 percent delay rate and 4 percent cancellation rate like US Airways, it might seem easy to shrug it off as another “here we go again” situation. However, passenger service agents need to appreciate that cancellations are not ordinary to passengers.

Draft Consistent Messages. Even my partner, who attempted to connect with the 1-800 number from home, noted that after speaking with four people, each of them had conflicting messages and none of them were told what I was told on scene (which was different from what other airlines told passengers for that matter). A consistent message — we will get you to your destination and, more importantly, we care — would have went a long way.

Create A Crisis Team. Two or three people serving stranded customers in a bank line model does not work. US Airways could have used personnel who were obviously not checking people in on these flights to assist. Even a 4-person team could have provided a better structure: two on the counter; one to assist off counter (calling for updates, gathering hotel availability, etc.); and the one to handle special needs, eg. parents who needed their baggage, which contained their baby’s formula (baggage could have tracked the bags before the family went down to claim them).

Offer Pre-Counter Service. Rather than allow a passenger service agent to walk the line and discourage passengers; the employee could have told passengers what to expect, letting them know that they were being booked on the next available flight; that it might be late tonight or tomorrow morning; that if they want to change flight plans, need baggage, or have other needs, fill out a form so they can assist expediently; and for those spending the night, they would receive an updated list of hotels ready to accommodate them.

Provide Real Guidance. Given the frequency of cancellations due to, um, "weather" in Philadelphia, US Airways could have easily produced a working list of area hotels based on rates, proximity, and availability, making it easier for passengers (even if the airline refused to pay for them).

Expedite the Line. Four-and-a-half hours (some waiting even longer) is too long when the "return on wait" is negligible or negative. Studies prove long waits are more bearable only if customers can see superior service ahead of them. Since our plan already provides passengers information before they reach the counter, passenger service agents could have fine-tuned their communication, saying “we have booked you on this flight, which means you may want to stay at this hotel tonight at this rate. If you want to change your plans, need your bags for medical or other reasons, or if you have additional special needs, this agent will assist you over here.” Move them forward. Put them at ease.

Simple. Easy. Effective. Empathetic. At minimum, it would have been better than. Instead, the only communication besides a few discouraging employees was a fifth generation photocopy that began “The entire US Airways team sincerely apologizes for this disruption to your travel plans.” It was disingenuous at best and communicated the exact opposite at worst. Frankly, the letter US Airways passed out last week created more negativity than no letter at all.

If anything, it reinforced the only semblance of a consistent message that US Airways seemed to have for the passengers stranded in Philadelphia: “Ha ha! We’re blaming the weather for the cause of every cancellation tonight. You are on your own and I wish you would just deal with it on your own because I’m going home in an hour, and you're not. We just don't care.”

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1 comments:

Rich on 8/15/07, 10:23 AM said...

Famous Last Words:

"ROB: Hey, the biggest untapped market for airline passengers are. . . get this. . . pissed off airline passengers! Follow me here. Let's respond to customer complaints by giving people coupons for money off ANOTHER FLIGHT! We shut the poor bastard up, and we sell another ticket!

PHIL: Rob, you're a genius, I'm making you the new VP in charge of customer relations." — From S. Andrew Swann's (aka Steven Krane and S. A. Swiniarski) blog.

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