Finally! An Airline Brings Some Humanity To Air Travel

Earlier this month, a major U.S. airline did the unthinkable – it actually showed some heart.

Earlier this month, a major U.S. airline did the unthinkable – it actually showed some heart.

Even more surprising:  this glimmer of hope, in an industry consumers love to hate, came from United Airlines – not exactly a poster child for customer-centricity.

You might recall, a few years ago, United was at the center of one of the first viral social media rants that woke companies up to the power of “word of mouse.”  (For more on that debacle, read about how “United Breaks Guitars.”)

But we’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and even if United isn’t yet a shining beacon of customer experience, they did something really right this time around.  And, ironically, the story went viral and has given United the kind of PR boost that money can’t buy.

Read the full story at CNN.com – “United Airlines Delays Flight For Man To See Dying Mother.”  While the title may seem to give it all away, read it anyway, because the details matter here – and they reflect some key principles that any business should employ when trying to deliver a more positive, memorable customer experience:

  • Take personal ownership.  When the pilot and flight attendants became aware of this passenger’s situation, they took personal ownership for shaping the outcome of the story.  Oftentimes, the difference between a really bad and a really good customer experience can be found in the level of personal accountability that front-line staff take for assisting customers.  It’s a decidedly low-tech lever, but a remarkably powerful one.
  • Advocate for your customers.  Consumers are so accustomed to seeing companies look out for themselves that it’s actually pretty striking when a business behaves to the contrary.  In this extraordinary circumstance, United chose to put the customer’s interests (getting the man to his dying mother’s bedside) ahead of its own (on-time performance).
  • Personalize the experience.  As the man was rushing to his connecting gate, the United agent spotted him 20 yards out and yelled, “Mr. Drake, we’ve been expecting you!”  Addressing a customer by name and giving a personal welcome – they’re small gestures, but they make people feel less like a generic revenue source and more like an individual, valued client.
  • Pay attention to the details.  The pilot of the incoming plane radioed ahead to the connecting city, to make the United staff aware of the passenger’s situation so they would hold his connecting flight.  But someone in the ground crew had the sense to realize that it wasn’t just this man who needed to get on the connecting flight — but his bags, too.  Delivering a great customer experience means leaving nothing to chance.  The details matter, and this United ground crew was all over it.
  • Socialize the right behaviors.  Even after the incident, United continued its string of good decisions, by highlighting this story in its employee newsletter.  Don’t assume that your staff knows exactly what it means to deliver a great customer experience.  Showcase behavior that they can model, by making heroes out of those who do it right.

Becoming an airline industry customer experience leader will be a long-haul flight for United.  But if they just study this particular, poignant interaction – they’ll know what direction to head.