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Stephanie Vaughn Hapke Headshot

Airlines, Customer Service and the Failure of Technology

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I am very fortunate that I am able to do the bulk of my work from my home in the Midwest. The commute is great, the cost of living much lower than the east coast (where the Huffington Post is based), and I am afforded a level of flexibility in my work hours that would be hard in an office environment. Alas, there are also some down-sides to working from home, but that is a story for another day.

As my responsibilities have grown, it's become necessary to sometimes travel to the HuffPost mothership in NYC several times a year. There are some things that phone and email communication just cannot replace. I have made about 6 trips to NYC and the DC area this past year and have actually come to enjoy traveling. Unlike many, I have not had any bad experiences with the airlines, until last week that is. Granted, compared to many airline horror stories I have heard, this is pretty much nothing, but based on my stellar experience thus far, it is a big thing for me.

Let me set the stage a little first. I am what the airlines call, "a person of size." As a result, most airlines require me to purchase two coach seats, or a premium (aka First/Business Class) seat. Because I want to be comfortable, and I don't want to inconvenience others or make them uncomfortable, I follow the rules -- I usually buy first class (one first class seat is usually cheaper than two coach seats, and I get free checked bags).

This past week, I was plagued by the bane of air travelers -- the short layover/connection. I had a mere 30 minutes between flights, based on how our travel desk booked the reservation. Leaving my origin airport, I was told we were 19 minutes behind schedule before we even took off. I just knew I would miss my connection.

During the flight, I spoke with my neighbor across the aisle and the flight attendant about my situation. My neighbor was a frequent flyer with experience at the transfer airport, and gave me some tips. The attendant told me that as long as I was at the departure gate prior to scheduled departure, they had to let me board by FAA regulations. I also checked the status of our flight, and learned that we were now only 7 minutes behind schedule. Hmmm. I have a chance. The connecting airport, in Minneapolis - St. Paul also has customer service carts that circle the airport, and I was hoping I could get a ride, as my departure gate was obviously on the other side of the airport.

I won't detail the fun of getting across the airport (maybe another time), but I arrived at the gate as they were heading to close the door, 5 minutes ahead of departure time. The gate agent held the door for me, but informed me that my seat had been reassigned, and she bumped me to economy. The first class seat that "I" paid for, and they require me to buy had been given away.

Because I didn't want to spend time in a TSA holding room, I kept my mouth shut, was thankful that the seat they gave me (vacated by the man who took my seat) had an empty seat next to it, and that I was on my way home.

I get to my home airport, ready to fight with someone. I talk to the gate agent, who is nothing but pleasant and apologetic, but does not know how to honor my request for a refund of the difference between the seat I paid for and the one I was forced to take (a reasonable request in my mind). A supervisor was summoned.

I relate my story again to the supervisor, who makes a phone call and then tells me there is nothing she can do -- the person who was upgraded to my seat did not pay for the upgrade, so they could not refund my money. After some further protest on my part, she did offer me a voucher for my inconvenience -- $50. I told her it was an insult, took my paperwork and left.

During this exchange, she told me that it was airline policy to open first class seats to eligible upgrade recipients 15 minutes prior to departure if the original ticket holder had not yet arrived. She said that they had no idea if I was coming, so they had to do it.

Considering that both flights were on the same airline (a major air carrier based in Atlanta, GA), on the same reservation/ticket/confirmation code, and that I had checked in both online and at the origin airport for both flights, how was it that they had NO idea about my delayed flight. Let's make this one even better -- my checked bag made it onto the connecting flight with no problem.

Either they knew, and the supervisor was lying to me, or they really don't care about their customers. Why can't their technology point out situations like this so that they can find solutions. I can think of several options that a company concerned about their customers might do in a situation like this:

  1. Have the arriving gate agent rebook me on another flight before I try running across the airport.
  2. Have a customer service cart sitting at my arrival gate to take me to the other one.
  3. Give me options at the originating airport, since they knew we would be late arriving.

Those are the quick ideas, and I am sure there are many other possibilities. Use the technology you have available to deliver top notch service. The airlines complain that they are losing business and face much stronger competition from other carriers. Why not leverage the technology to set yourself apart. With all the horror stories I hear about flying, an airline going out of their way for their customers would clearly benefit from such an effort.

Leveraging technology to improve peoples lives is not limited to the airlines, or even to customer service in general. Our CTO, John Pavley wrote last year about a simple way that the Aurora theater shooting might have been avoided via technology that already exists in retail marketing.

What ideas do you have for using technology to improve our lives?

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