A Crash Landing for Airline Service Quality
Nobody cares anymore. Service quality is spiraling downward everywhere you turn. Several months ago, I flew from San Francisco to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The first leg of the trip was on American Airlines flight 806 from San Francisco to New York. During the flight, I pointed out to the flight attendant that the quality of the nuts had gone downhill. The airline used to have great spicy mixed nuts in first class, but now they're cut with about 50-percent soybeans to save an estimated two cents per passenger.
"Why are you telling me?" she asked.
I told her it was because she represented American Airlines.
"I don't represent American Airlines," she fired back. "Send them a letter to complain about it."
"Sorry," I replied. "I thought you worked for American Airlines."
"Everyone complains about it, but when we tell management, no one listens to us," she said.
The flight left San Francisco late due to a mechanical problem. We arrived at New York's JFK Airport about 45 minutes before my connecting flight with Emirates Airlines. I arrived at the Emirates Airlines counter along with five other passengers from flight 806 at 11 p.m., 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time of the Dubai flight. We were told that the flight closed 45 minutes before departure, according to airport rules. Our seats had been held as long as possible because Emirates Airlines was aware that the American Airlines flight was arriving late. The counter attendant had worked out an alternative schedule, however: We could fly on the same flight 24 hours later or take an early-morning American Airlines flight to London, connect there to an Emirates Airlines flight to Dubai and arrive only 12 hours late.
At about 11:10, we persuaded the counter attendant to talk to his manager, but he told us there was nothing he could do. He said Emirates Airlines continually has problems due to late arrivals of American Airlines flights. About then, a voice on the loudspeaker announced that our flight was boarding for Dubai. Ten minutes later, final boarding was called and 15 minutes later, the voice announced that everyone must be on board.
Emirates Airlines routed us back to terminal eight, explaining that American Airlines was responsible for providing us with food and shelter for the evening. Once we got back, no one was there. We wandered around for about an hour and finally found someone down in the baggage area. After another 45-minute wait, a young woman appeared at the counter and informed us there was nothing she could do. We'd just have to wait for 24 hours and catch the Emirates Airlines flight the next day. I explained about the 8 a.m. American Airlines flight to London and the connection to Dubai. The woman insisted that wasn't an acceptable connection, and we'd be stranded in London. I told her I had the schedule printed out by the Emirates Airlines counter agent, but she refused to even look at it. However, the five of us refused to leave, and eventually she agreed that there was, in fact, a connection. It took another 20 minutes per person to get vouchers for a hotel and meals.
It was nearly 2 a.m. before we were ready to leave for the hotel, which was about 40 miles away out on Long Island. We got into our hotel rooms at about 3:15 a.m. The limo driver told us it would take two hours to get back to JFK in the morning, so we'd have to leave at 5 a.m. He said he'd simply wait for us.
American Airlines had given us a dinner chip, but of course no place was open at that hour. The breakfast chip--for $5--was equally useless because the hotel restaurant didn't open until 6:30 a.m.
Along with everything else, American Airlines told us it could do nothing about our checked luggage because a subcontractor handled that process. We were also told that there's no airport rule about closing the gate 45 minutes before departure. It was a good practice for people with luggage, but Emirates Airlines had plenty of time to process us, so it wasn't an American Airlines problem.
The woman at the counter suggested we go back to Emirates Airlines and have it sort out our luggage problem. I pointed out that it was closed. She said we'd have to wait until we arrived in Dubai and hope that Emirates Airlines could find our luggage in JFK and have it forwarded to us in two or three days.
Poor service! Poor training! Poor processes! Poor software! Untruthful people! What an opportunity for applying total quality management and process redesign to both airlines.
I'm a platinum frequent flyer on American Airlines with more than three million miles recorded on my card. I'm also a lifetime member of the airline's Admirals Club, so I get special treatment--or so I'm told.
What do you think the average customer gets if this is the way the company treats its special customers?
H. James Harrington is CEO of the Harrington Institute Inc. and chairman of the board of Harrington Group. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 22 books. Visit his Web site at www.harrington-institute.com.