When is a customer service problem a crisis?

First, a warning. I’m in a pretty bad mood right now. I’m sitting in an airport gate in Pasco, WA instead of home where I belong. My flight from LAX to Bellingham last night was delayed by two and a half hours because of mechanical problems. Another flight of this airline leaving about this time from LAX on this airline were delayed for mechanical problems. Having two planes have to be flown in as replacements back to back is a little disconcerting.

It was almost impossible to hear the gate announcements about boarding, which were infrequent and remarkably unprofessional. Since this airline, now undoubtedly the worst in the world including the Third World, has a policy of mixing open seating with extra cost
paid seats, the missing gate announcements caused confusion, anger and near fisticuffs in the row across from us. The flight attendants were obviously not empowered or trained to resolve the dispute so the gate agent came on board and through sheer rudeness made everyone feel even worse.

So now we are over two hours late. Missed our ride from the airport. But, it gets worse. We were just about to arrive in Bellingham when the pilot comes on and says the snow in Bellingham is forcing them to land in Pasco. Pasco? Where the heck is Pasco? Why not Seattle where transportation to Bellingham would be easy? Pasco is on the other side of the state, a seven hour bus ride from Bellingham. Is there an explanation? No. Is there an apology? No. Is there a recognition that if they didn’t have another of their now completely predictable mechanical failures, the snow in Bellingham would have been no problem? No.

The pilot did say they would get us more information when we landed. And that was the worst of their broken promises. There was not one single piece of information provided by anyone from the airline. We heard from someone talking by cellphone to a parent in Bellingham waiting to pick them up that we would be put on busses for the seven hour ride. Did I mention it is now about midnight? The only way we figured out what we were supposed to do was when a taxi showed up and said he was to take us to the Red Lion. He had no other info, and neither did the very nice but suddenly overwhelmed desk manager at the Red Lion.

This morning we were told to go back to the airport because the flight to Bellingham would leave at 10. More horrendous lines and when we get to the ticket counter for boarding passes we are offered a $50 voucher for a future flight. Not a single apology through any of this. Nothing to indicate from anyone involved that this is anything other than the normal way they do business. I believe it may be the case.

While in LA I was working with a client on risk and emergency communication messaging. Much of our work was about how to communicate empathy and concern in action and message. Dr. Vince Covello and Dr. Tim Tinker are the experts in this and I take my lead from them. In an emergency or crises, clear simple messages are critical and so is showing those impacted that you understand what is happening to them and that you sincerely care. While on this trip I’ve been reading a book about building high trust in organizations. There are too many lessons here to recount in this post.

I’ve quoted Brian Humphrey of LAFD before when he commented that during hurricane Katrina the people in the Superdome were dying for a lack of information. I am so struck and amazed at the patience and goodwill of the vast majority of these people around me in this flight, if not from hell, then purgatory. But, they and my wife and I deserve so much better from this company. It is painfully clear the disrespect that they have and have shown to us consistently. Not in their poor maintenance but in their abysmal communications.

My wife asked who can we write to? No one I responded. My comment was based on the clear behavior of everyone of their crew, from pilot to gate agents. No letter to senior management could possibly have any meaning. This is an airline built and run to feed people to Las Vegas by offering ridiculously low prices and then dinging you at every opportunity through “priority boarding,” paid seats that cause near fights, outrageous baggage fees, etc. My $79 one way ticket turned into a $250 round trip without even blinking. Their flights are jam packed and they have been expanding quickly using this formula.

The convenience of flying direct from Bellingham is a big advantage. But not nearly enough to risk flying with them again. Good luck to you Allegiant.

By the way, it is now 10:45 am. If you decide to send out a search party, start looking in Pasco. Oh, and my question about when is a customer service problem a crisis? One answer is when a complaint like this goes viral. (hint hint) But for the about 200 people stuck here in Pasco, this is a crisis we won’t soon forget.

4 thoughts on “When is a customer service problem a crisis?”

  1. Gerald,

    The true mark of any organization is how their ‘triad’ performs in times of duress. The elements of Crisis Management and Crisis Communication cannot take form or function without the distinctly separate but essential Crisis Leadership.

    The most essential element of gaining support in a crisis is also the most difficult: asking for help. This is especially true for those of us who are normally on the other side of the equation, and I therefore commend you.

    Getting to the heart of the matter… I pass through Pasco Airport now and then – but never on Allegiant. I have contacts there that can assist you in the most essential of human needs. Please let me know how I and others can help – and during your journey home, please capture the passion and preciousness of each passing moment.

    Brian Humphrey
    Call me at anytime: (805) 876-HELP

  2. I agree with your observations on the 3rd to last paragraph.
    Given that info, who are you most upset with; yourself, believing all this, or the airline for meeting low expectations?
    We have experienced some pretty miserable treatment from what might be cinsidered “1st World” airlines. I fear we are becoming too accustomed to poor service.

  3. I dunno. Sounds like the airline made a unscheduled re-route due to snow, paid for everyone’s hotel, and paid you all $50 for their troubles. Seems like you could take your own lesson in patience and tolerance. Bellingham airport is barely large enough to accommodate the planes Allegient flys in the best of weather, so I understand why the pilot didn’t want to try and land in snow. Better to re-route than try to land and risk a crash, where I am sure your night would have been worse off…Sure Allegient could use a bit of customer service, but still.

  4. When you say “Is there a recognition that if they didn’t have another of their now completely predictable mechanical failures, the snow in Bellingham would have been no problem? No”, …are you saying that you would have appreciated them stating the obvious “Attention passengers, although the snow itself is not our fault, if we had not had the maintenance problem in L.A., we may well have arrived before the snow shut down the airport.” ?

    That just seems unconstructive like crying over spilled milk.

    You said “we are offered a $50 voucher for a future flight. Not a single apology through any of this.”. $50 seems like an apology that many people would prefer over words. The airline will be losing the profit from several other successful flights to pay for the lodging and $50 vouchers etc. of this mess. Money talks, but what you wanted …walks.

    You said “Nothing to indicate from anyone involved that this is anything other than the normal way they do business.”. Well the snow really isn’t their fault, and without the snow, the whole thing would have been a minor delay, not the ordeal you experienced. They should “feel bad and apologize” for the part of this that is actually their fault.

    That all said, clearly they had no agreements worked out with SeaTac, and had to fly to a partner airport with available capacity. That stinks. And they clearly should have communicated the plan, or even the selection of possible outcomes (if they were still determining which ones they could get).

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