United Breaks Hearts

Does every cloud really have a silver lining? My Continental (now United) Airlines customer experience.

Bad weather happens, period. Aircraft have limitations, and one of these is that they cannot safely take off, fly or land in severe weather conditions. On Saturday 29th October my flight from Las Vegas, where I had attended the Technology Services World conference, to Newark was diverted to Rochester, New York State, because we needed to refuel after bad weather and a failed landing system had prevented us from landing as planned. I had around four hours between connections so felt relaxed about the delay, and reckoned that my Newark to Edinburgh flight would be a bit delayed anyway.

As it happened, my comfort turned to discomfort as the delay in taking off from Rochester, and the length of flight to Newark, and the holding pattern we were put in, ate away the available time. We landed around twenty minutes before my next flight was due to leave and then experienced further delays getting to our parking gate caused by departing aircraft queuing to be de-iced.

Once I disembarked I found there was a delay of two hours and forty minutes on the Edinburgh flight, which suited me nicely and allowed time to have dinner before we boarded. I let everyone at home know about the delay so there would be no concerns.

Then the real tale begins. The new 10.15pm departure time came and went with only a “there will be a gate change but I don’t know what the new gate will be” announcement. Then the screens showed that departure would be at 11pm from the same gate. Then it changed to show that the flight was going to London at 11.05pm, and no mention of Edinburgh. No announcement either, and this caused a bit of concern with passengers taken by surprise.

A look at the main screens showed that CO37 would leave from the same gate at 11.30pm, but the gate staff hadn’t announced this. In fact, the ground staff didn’t know about this. The flight crew had arrived earlier and were as keen as the passengers to know what was heppening.

Well, the London flight departed and 11.30 for Edinburgh turned into midnight on the screens, and then the screens stopped saying anything. This resulted in a small crowd gathering at the gate desk, somewhat alarmed at the fluid and unannounced nature of events.

Then 1pm was shown, then 1.58pm (nice to know that departure accuracy is so important), then anger started emerging. There was no plane, no announcements, confidence was drying up and questions were being asked. The gate staff, ear glued to phone, didn’t have answers and couldn’t get them. There was a bit of yelling, out of frustration, and choice words said. Then we were told that the plane would be at the gate within thirty minutes and then we’d depart at 3am.

During this period I had texted home to keep family informed w, and calling the taxi company with updates – my 6.30am collection time was pushed back to 1.15pm eventually.

3am, it turns out, was an important milestone. If we went beyond this the crew would be out of time and unable to legally fly the plane. I found this out at 3.10am after I’d been sitting on the plane for around thirty minutes. I was starting to close my eyes and planning to sleep when a Continental manager came on board with two “heavies” (policemen, just in case) and announced that the crew was now “illegal” so the flight was cancelled.

This isn’t the end of the story, however, as we were told to go to a desk outside of security where we would be assigned new flights. This obviously meant that I wasn’t going home as planned and would have to stay overnight. It also transpires that a few other flights were cancelled and the same instructions given to other passengers. We stood for nine hours on a hard stone floor, first of all waiting for staff to arrive (“will be there within thirty minutes” we were told when we disembarked at 3.10am but actually began at around 5.45am with one person to look after three hundred people wanting flight re-assignments), and then shuffling extremely slowly forwards. The queue went down mostly because people gave up or made arrangements by phone with Continental or their travel agent. It takes a long time to find new flights for parties of three or four family members travelling together.

As I stood in line, I received an email from the airline telling me that I would be able to fly home on Tuesday night, so I called Continental and was told a flight via London on Monday was available. I was also told to stay in line to get my checked bag sorted out and because the ground crew might be able to find a better flight for me. Eventually, with very sore feet, some of us were peeled off and told to “follow me” to get attention more quickly elsewhere. It was now almost 1pm.

The outcome was a seat on a flight to Glasgow on Sunday, so I’ll be home on Monday morning which is a big improvement on where I was a few hours earlier.

This is a customer experience lesson for Continental and every other company that must handle large numbers of tired and inconvenienced customers, and where patience will help them figure out what to do to get things moving again. Some points:

  • People got angry because they didn’t know – no-one even had the courtesy to try and explain what was happening both before we got on the plane and especially after we disembarked and stood in line
  • I spoke to a number of passengers and the belief that the airline knew much earlier that flights were not going to leave was firm. Right or wrong, perception is an individual’s reality, no matter how far from the truth it may be
  • As we stood, no-one offered us water, snacks, advice, information, or allowed us to ask questions

I appreciate that staff were working hard to get people moving but having a small number help customers feel more comfortable and address real needs and concerns before they got bigger would have paid dividends. A little kindness goes a long way, the saying goes.

There was a palpable sense of relief as people eventually arrived at the front of the line. Some even punched the air in joy. More so when they found that a same day flight was available.

It was quite an experience. Not one I would choose to repeat soon. I could be feeling a lot more positively towards the airline with just a little more information and being made to feel more comfortable.

Have your customer experiences been better or worse than this?

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