For over ten years now I have tried not to miss the Palo Alto Library book sale, that’s held the second Saturday of every month. In the early days I’d go berserk picking up every book that I could lay my hands on (at $1 for hardbacks and 25 cents for paperbacks could you blame me?). In December when I was in San Jose, I took a much more leisurely stroll through the sale. Besides a pulp novel for the plane ride, I picked up only one book, “The Customer Driven Company” by Richard C. Whitely. Little did I suspect how appropriate this book was going to be to my ride home. I guess when we are ready, the lessons seek us out.

It began at Chicago – despite some 200 flights being cancelled earlier that day, my flight to Paris was going to be on time! Thanking the travel gods, I ran to get into line for my check in. Once I got to the counter, is when my troubles began. To save you the gory details, the litany of woes from here on out included:

  • They didn’t have a vegetarian meal for me – worse yet the lady couldn’t care less – when I showed her my printed itinerary with the AVL tag on it, she said “That’s Delta’s computer system – its not in ours” (it was a code share flight). Then she coolly went on to call out for the next customer!
  • In Paris, they board all of us (still with no AVL), and after nearly an hour on board, announce they have a problem with the potable water system and engineers are trying to fix it. An hour later they say there are still trying and we should stay put. An elderly gentleman, walks up to a flight steward and tells him that he is diabetic and asks could he have some orange juice. The steward responds (I am not making this stuff up) “We have water – if we gave you juice, we’d have to give everyone juice.” Finally after four hours (during which the flight crew was found snacking and drinking juice in the rear) we are asked to deplane – all 350 of us – and head back to the transfer counter
  • The only silver lining at the transfer counter (we get in line around 3PM) is that all passengers are treated with truly equal disdain without discrimination on the basis of skin color, nationality or gender. By 5PM we are actually given some bottles of water, juice and sandwiches arrive at 6PM. The plight of the folks who were unfortunate enough to be travelling with kids was truly appalling. Each passenger was being re-routed (next day, same day through Dubai, or via Frankfurt). The miracle was even at this point, NONE of the passengers were yelling or screaming. By mid-night there is a near riot, when the remaining passengers are told they may have to stay over yet another day. Till the time, I got my own ticket re-routed to London Heathrow and then onward to my final destination, no airline official had explained to any of the waiting passengers what was being done – let alone apologize for the inconvenience to the customers. The irony of standing in line reading “The Customer Driven Company” seemed lost to any the crew members.
  • Beyond all these indignities, what stayed with me was the surly nature and utter indifference of the crew even in the normal flight, going out to San Francisco from Paris and on the way back from Chicago to Paris. It made me wonder what is it that makes, an entire crew and later ground staff, in essence a statistically large sample of the organization behave without any semblance of a customer service mindset.

I have been travelling across the Pacific (ANA, Cathay, Malaysian, Singapore, Thai) and the Atlantic (Air India, American, Delta, Lufthansa, United) for more than twenty years. In the last five years, I have travelled a minimum of five times a year internationally and put in my share of hops on Jet Airways, Kingfisher, Ryan Air and Southwest as well. This makes me a reasonable judge of the service levels for air travel. While by no means is poor service the sole prerogative of my (via) Paris trip, surly and inconsiderate cabin crew has been seen on Delta, United and occassionally even on Thai – the French experience was on an altogether new low. A casual browse through the Internet shows that my experiences are by no means unique.

Every airline has problems, often caused by things way out of their control – however, how they respond to it is totally in their control. This is true for every business and in our own lives. Truly successful businesses, Singapore Airlines and Nordstrom jump to mind, lay great emphasis on having a customer service mindset. And this shows how they respond especially when things don’t turn out they way they are supposed to. As someone who has travelled with two kids multiple times across the Pacific, I can personally vouch for what a world of difference a customer service mindset can make even when the kids are sick and throwing up, the TV doesn’s work and your special meal is no where to be found. A graceful smile, an apology, an understanding nod, maybe an extra blanket or pillow go a long way to not only making a passenger comfortable even in adverse circumstances but convert them to a lifelong customer. You’d think this would be simple – alas even good companies that knew how to do it well even on a short haul flight across California (such as AirCal, PSA) lost it when they were acquired by larger airlines and of course the trans-oceanic flight history is littered with its share of horrow stories (can you say TWA)!