Dealing with Anguish in the Air

Dealing With Anguish in the Air

Tom Peters

The summer travel season is upon us, and the airlines are doling
out lousy service as never before. Legislation, amounting to
partial re-regulation is likely; for instance, at least one bill
would control scheduling to even-out flight arrivals and
departures throughout the day at major hubs. But in the meantime,
there are some things that front-line airline personnel can do for
beleaguered (and increasingly angry) passengers that would be a
big first step toward reversing the clearly perceived pattern of
contempt for and indifference toward customers that now exists:

1. Use the pronouns “I” and “we,” not “they.” “They require us
to… .” is a sentence that sets my nerve ends jangling. The
airline employee, at a gate or in the air, is the
airline to me, the passenger. “They” is of no concern, because I
will never meet “they.” “I” or “we” indicates that the front-
line service provider cares and takes at least some
responsibility for what’s going on.

2. Never say, “The computer… .” as in “The computer cancelled
your reservation” (this happened to me recently on TWA). No it
didn’t. Computers don’t think, or cancel reservations. An airline
programmer, following management’s guidance, wrote some code
which made whatever it was happen (e.g., automatic cancellation
of a reservation if you’re not there so many minutes before
flight time — or even if you are there, but stuck in a long
line). All “the computer” does is tally ones and zeros at a very
fast clip. Try a more human, “ We cancelled … .”

3. One more no-no: “You should have been told [of some arcane
restriction on a ticket]” — I saw this one happen to three
vacation travelers in 10 minutes the other day. In an effort to
make more outrageous promises than the next airline about super-
duper deluxe discounts, airlines have so many confusing fare
bases that even those who write the rules don’t understand them
all. The obscure restriction may well be in the ticket contract,
but the airlines caused the basic confusion. Advice: When there is
confusion the customer gets the benefit of the doubt; he or she
isn’t trying to steal from you.

4. Another that has to go: “There will be a ten-minute delay.”
I fly about 225,000 miles a year, and can’t recall a single ten-
minute delay. Frequent (and even not so frequent but increasingly
savvy) flyers know full well that ten minutes is a code phrase
for (i) “It’s gonna be an hour” or (ii) “We haven’t the slightest
clue when (or if) it’s going to get out of here.” In a recent
column I pleaded “under promise, over deliver.” I still remember,
a year later, one Eastern pilot who warned us of a 45-minute hold-
up; when we cleared out of La Guardia just 30 minutes later I was
ecstatic — because of both the “early” departure (versus the
grim prediction) and the honesty.

5. I’d also take kindly to no more “the flight controllers have
traffic backed up.” It’s not the flight controllers. The airlines
are purposefully over-scheduling (collectively) in critical
hours, often by 100 percent. Most so-called “flow control delays”
are airline made, not FAA made.

6. And finally (this happens to me from time to time, I must
admit), “I’m not going to let you raise your voice like that.”
Sadly, the only time I get an “I” rather than “they” in response
is when I respond to the airline person heatedly. Now, suddenly,
it is personal. Losing one’s temper is never becoming, I admit.
But please understand that I spent $1,000 on the ticket. The
flight (and perhaps my week) is a shambles thanks to you
(you’re the airline to me, remember?). For any $1,000 purchase
(it’s a tenth the price of an automobile), I expect a lot. And
yet when I point out — a bit angrily — that I do expect
something, often as not I’m made to feel that I’m the one being
unreasonable, and even irresponsible.

How does the situation get resolved? It probably will take some
legislation, I regret to say. But that isn’t the issue here. The
problem, which has close parallels in every business, can be
influenced on the front line.

The key is simple acknowledgment via the most powerful phrase in
the language: “I’m sorry.” The phrase encompasses not only the
(usually well deserved) apology, but the all powerful “I,”
signaling acceptance of personal responsibility.

The reason the phrase is so powerful is that we’re all ultimately
human. I greatly sympathize with the front-line person, at an
airline or in any commercial setting. If the slightest indication
of personal responsibility is given, then it is easy for me to be
tolerant. It is precisely the absence of that responsibility-
taking (“they”) that leads me to lash out in frustration at the
“they” (computer, etc.), whereas I can’t imagine lashing out at
an “I.”

Management, of course, holds the key. First-line people are only
likely to accept personal responsibility and be sorry when the
airline’s (or others) top management is providing them support,
or at least empathy, and seems to care itself.

I fear it is going to be a very long summer in the unfriendly
skies, but this simple advice to the front line might help
restrain the surge of passenger ire — and also lead to
profitability, as only American and Delta (and an equally small
share of firms in other industries) seem to understand.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

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