the power of service

This weekend, SheTech is on the road. More accurately, SheTech is in airports. I’m traveling for client meetings and encountered some interesting examples of both outstanding and abysmal customer service–from the same airline!

You may or may not be aware that United‘s regional shuttle service is operated by a number of smaller carriers, depending on where you are. At my home airport, Knoxville’s McGhee-Tyson Regional Airport (TYS), Comair runs it. You may have heard rumors about how Comair runs its service (or lack thereof), and I can attest to those rumors. Okay, I’ll just say it: Comair sucks. This is not the first time I’ve had problems with them, nor, I’m sure, will it be the last time.

Yesterday I arrived at the gate in plenty of time, after a smooth trip through security. All was well until the ground crew came out and said that someone noted a spot of oil under the plane. So they called a mechanic to sign off on it. Because the crew were changing over, they had to do an extra check, and could not simply rely on the word of the previous crew that things were A-OK. There are strict requirements (and rightly so!) about checking an airplane for mechanical problems. I and my traveling companions agreed that we’re grateful for those strict requirements.

However, the mechanic took his sweet time getting there, and decided to look over another plane first–one that actually required a significant commitment of time. Rather than coming to ours first, even after having been told that it was just a quick check/sign-off (the ground crew were certain it was just spilled oil, not a leak), he went to the other plane first and stayed there.

He was there for over an hour.

So, there we sat, watching and waiting. For over an hour.

Our plane, obviously, was delayed.

While the ground crew at our gate were actually lovely people, the mechanic loses points for United/Comair for making a poor judgement call. I don’t know, maybe there’s a regulation about first come, first served. Still, it seems like a bad call in this case.

We did finally get off the ground (yes, it was just a spill, not a leak), and while I was in the air, United rebooked me on another flight.

At 8:30 a.m. the next morning.

Now, being the plugged-in nerd that I am, I have all the alerts in place, so I received a text message about it as soon as I turned on my mobile phone (a BlackBerry Pearl, my third one because I love them so much).

We got to the gate in what I thought would be enough time to still make my connection, so I immediately called United. They lose more points for forcing their callers through an automated phone system. The voice recognition technology is finally catching up to other kinds of technology, so getting through the system was not bad, but there is not a simple way to ask for a live representative. Nor is there a way to avoid getting all sorts of “helpful” messages about going to the web site to do this and that.

I reached a representative and asked to be put back on my original connection. United gets points for responding quickly in that regard.

However, while I was on the phone, the flight crew announced that, although we had gotten to the gate in good time, we were waiting for a ground crew. Waiting for a ground crew? For a flight that was already an hour late, with tight connections as a result? Who made that decision? Are they understaffed? Perhaps because they’ve been laying people off? Seems to me that ground crew is one of those critical services that should be left alone even in a difficult economy.

So there we sat, for at least ten minutes. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but there was no margin for error. United loses points for not having a ground crew ready for a very late plane.

They let the people off the plane  first who had tight connections, so we ran to our respective gates.

Mine, I thought, was a gate right across the aisle. Why did I think that? Because United had sent me a text message notifying me that my departure gate was A3, right across from where we arrived, at A4.

I got to A3, only to be asked “who sent you here?”

Uh. Your alert service.

“Oh, your flight goes out of C20. You’ll never make it.”

I ran.

I actually made it to the gate with ten minutes to spare.

Ten minutes!

The gate crew saw us coming–there were a few of us from the same flight, and we were still running–watched us come up, and

closed

the

door.

Ten minutes!

We begged, we pleaded, we swore. They left the gate closed and basically said “too bad”.

Now, if it was two minutes, I could understand. But ten minutes? They had not taken the steps away when we got there. but they took them away while we were watching.

United loses about a hundred points for that one. Oh, and for the comment from one of the gate crew, who so helpfully said “We made the last call announcement already.”

Well, yes, but we were on another plane. It’s not as though we were just sitting in a coffee shop being slackers.

Right, so United, listen up: I’m planning on registering a complaint about the gate crew who were on gate C20 at Dulles (IAD) last night at 10:00 p.m. I am aware that the regulation is that the gate is closed ten minutes before the plane pushes back so the flight crew can finish their final check. But we were there with ten minutes to spare. Exactly ten minutes. The crew pretty much closed the door in our faces.

Okay, so next step: call United back and look for another flight that night.

Oh, too bad: that was the last flight. The next one doesn’t go out until 8:30 in the morning.

Right, so this was where it got better. I went over to the customer service desk, where a very helpful representative was issuing vouchers for food and hotel rooms. Her name is Christina Malave are you paying attention, United? I’m planning on sending in a feedback survey in her favor), and the customer service world should study at her feet. She was calm, helpful, friendly, sympathetic and went above and beyond to make sure we were happy.

My inital “Plan B” idea was to take Amtrak. Oops: no more trains until 3:00 a.m. Bus? Too far. And not very pleasant. And a five-hour drive. Okay, rent a car? Ew. Also a five-hour drive.

But, I had a meeting at 10:30 that I couldn’t miss. So I’ll drive.

Christina issued an airfare credit for half of my round-trip flight, and a meal voucher–along with a recommendation for a nearby restaurant that had good food and good coffee.

So I turned to go, and even got partway through the terminal, calling all the people on the other end who would be affected by the change of plans. By that time, I figured I’d have to cancel the 10:30 meeting, knowing I’d be incoherent after that long drive. So he said, “Well, if you’re cancelling that meeting, why not just stay the night?”

Oh.

So I turned back to Christina and said apologetically that I had changed my mind, and may I get that hotel voucher? I handed her the credit voucher, grateful that she had issued it in the first place, but figuring it would be the right thing to do to give it back. Well, she set me up with the hotel voucher, handed back the meal voucher, and also handed back the credit voucher! “Uh, seriously? That’s not necessary, since you’re putting me up in the hotel.” Her response: “You can just keep it. You had planned on driving. Consider this payback for the inconvenience.”

Wow.

Okay, United: keep Christina Malava. Pay her well. Reward her. Promote her and let her train anyone in your company that does anything with customer service. You won many, many points back for that one.

All has gone well after that: the hotel was fine (though the coffee in the room was abysmal–but I”m a coffee snob, thanks to Vienna Coffee Company). I’m about to board my plane. See you on the other side.

One thought on “the power of service

  1. Update to this trip: I’m back home now, after an uneventful return trip (aside from the early hour). I did notice, however, that on this morning’s flight, several people were allowed on the plane as close as two minutes before departure time. Same airport, same airline, different gate crew, run by Alliance rather than Comair.

    Furthermore, that very annoying trip out on Friday was the last flight that night. Being permitted on that plane would have actually resulted in United spending less money to remedy the situation. Instead, they ended up paying for several hotel rooms, meal and trip vouchers. The gate crew at C20 on Friday night were not only mean-spirited, they were shortsighted enough to cost United many hundreds of extra dollars (I was not the only passenger to fall victim to their arbitrary decision). One wonders how many times this has happened, and how much money such people have cost the company.

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