Airline Marketing Job #1: Ban the Phrase “There Is Nothing I Can Do”

It’s no secret that I believe an airline’s first and foremost “marketing” task, before a single dollar goes into fancy logos and brochures, is to take every step possible to deliver a consistent experience to each and every customer. While the nature of the business means that this is not always possible operationally (airlines often have little control over weather delays, mechanical failures, etc.), there is one thing that airlines can control the consistency of, each and every time: willingness to help.

As with any profession, some people are going to be better than others. While airlines can do their absolute best to hire only people with great interpersonal skills and cheerful, helpful demeanors, this is easier strategized than done. And even if they do succeed in that, human beings are by nature inconsistent–personal circumstances at any given moment often come through in our attitudes on the job. But despite the bad reputation of so many airline customer service practices, especially with North American carriers, I’m going to give these “front line” individuals the benefit of the doubt, and argue that while they may all have some genuine desire to be helpful and cordial within them, it is difficult to convey that attitude in situations when repeatedly, their employer has given them no power to make wrong situations right.

I witnessed a perfect one today in Denver International Airport, as I waited by the podium to board my United Airlines flight for Vancouver. Due to what they claimed was an aircraft change (which is likely a catch-all excuse given when airlines get caught overbooking too much and have to bump “confirmed” passengers, but which makes you scratch your head when it happens at one of a major carrier’s hub airports where they have ample aircraft on hand at any given time), the flight was overbooked by about 7 passengers. United was looking for volunteers to fly later in exchange for a (first $100, then $400) travel credit, and when nobody stepped forward, had to tell those 7 unlucky passengers that, despite purchasing their tickets as far four months back, they would not be able to take this (11am) flight. Instead, they were given a $400 travel credit (maybe check?), and rebooked on the next flight–which happened to be eight hours later.

Overbooking is a standard airline practice, and while many US legacy carriers are a bit too aggressive with their overbooking thresholds, this wasn’t my issue. It happens. What shocked me was in listening to UA’s customer service agent dealing with one of the bumped passengers–a mother traveling with two young children (that looked to be around 3 or 4 years old), connecting from an international flight, with no functioning mobile phone or other communication tool, that had already had her originally scheduled flight three hours early canceled due to a schedule change. Clearly distraught after demanding unsuccessfully to be accommodated on this flight, due to the nightmare that having to keep her kids entertained in an airport for the next 8 hours would cause her, the woman pleaded to at least be granted access to a computer to e-mail her contacts in Vancouver, who were going to pick her up. From this point, the dialogue went like this:

UA Agent: “I’m sorry ma’am. There is nothing I can do. There are computers in our lounge, which is a member’s only lounge, so I can’t give you complimentary access.”

Woman: “You mean you can’t or you won’t?”

Agent: “I can’t ma’am. It is a private club. You are welcome to purchase day access for $50 from the lounge entrance.”

Shocking, isn’t it? United canceled her original flight, overbooked her re-accommodated flight and failed to prioritize her family given their previous cancellation, informed her that she’d have to spend the next 8 hours waiting for the next departure, and still tried to charge her $50 for lounge access just to be able to tell her ride in Vancouver that she’d be late!!!! Talk about a slap in the face–I give this woman credit, because despite the flurry of inaudible curse words that followed the last line I shared in the dialogue above, she handled the situation better than I would have.

Cancellations, mechanical failures…they happen all the time, and by and large, the traveling public is generally understanding of this fact. However, in this case, there was no misconnect, no weather problem…simply a gamble that United took with its overbooking logarithm and lost–and this woman and her two young children paid for it! I don’t care whether the accounting books say that UA’s “Red Carpet” lounge is a private business entity–it was started by United as a service to its passengers, it still bears United’s name, and it sure as hell ought to be used, by any means necessary, to appease the frustrations of innocent passengers who have their plans disrupted by the airline’s failures. If that means United picks up the $50 fee, so be it. But to actually tell a passenger in that circumstance that she can pay an additional $50 to simply be able to communicate her disrupted travel plans to the other people impacted by them (her family/friends in Vancouver) is just beyond excuse.

By authorizing its front line agents the discretion to either waive a lounge access fee in this case, or simply have United pay it, that would be a much more effective expenditure of $50 than the 103 (yes, one hundred and three) unsolicited “Mileage Plus” credit card offers that I have received (and never opened) in just the past year alone. Or how about allowing her to use the agent’s company mobile to call Vancouver?

If I was in charge of United’s global marketing, my first priority would be to allocate any part of my budget necessary to make sure that the words “there is nothing I can do” are never uttered by a single one of my front-line agents. There is always something that can be done…it’s just a question of whether the airline will authorize and trust the staff that they employ to do it.

Have you ever been told those dreaded words, there is nothing I can do? If so, please do share the situation. I would like to compile your stories and collectively come up with something that could have been done in even the most uncontrollable of circumstances…

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One Comment to "Airline Marketing Job #1: Ban the Phrase “There Is Nothing I Can Do”"

  1. Very interesting points you have observed, thanks for posting.

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Customer Engagement Strategy for the Airline Industry