A Tale of Two Airlines

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A while back I traveled to Juneau on Alaska Airlines to give a presentation.

I boarded the airplane and after everyone was seated, the pilot announced he had a warning light in the cockpit that one of the hydraulic pumps had overheated and a maintenance technician was on the way to check it out.

After 20 minutes or so, he next announced the technician had verified that the pump had not overheated, it was a faulty indication in the cockpit, and he was checking with the airline’s operations center for guidance.

A few minutes later, the gate agent comes onboard, walks back to row 22 and tells a couple they would not make their tight connection in Seattle and she had booked them on an alternate flight. She helped them gather their belongings and escorted them off the aircraft.

The gate agent returns twice more to escort six more passengers to alternate flights.

The pilot provides periodic updates and then announces it’s been decided we must change aircraft. He makes a genuine apology for the inconvenience and delay and asks us to deplane while they arrange for another aircraft.

As we exit the aircraft, the gate agent directs us to an adjacent gate where a jet is being prepared for our boarding. 20 minutes later we are on the aircraft and depart San Francisco without further delay.

Alaska Airlines

Contrast that experience with another recent delay on a different airline:

After boarding the aircraft, we wait for the main cabin door to close, and wait, and wait.

We notice airline maintenance personnel entering and leaving the cockpit several times without explanation.

After our takeoff time has come and gone, the pilot announces they are experiencing a “minor maintenance problem” and working to get it resolved.

We sit and wait another hour.

The announcement finally comes that the flight is cancelled due to a maintenance problem and we must deplane and check with the gate agent or customer service for rebooking.

We exit the plane and stand in line for another hour while two harried gate agents try to solve travel connections.

For those of us who are rebooked on flights departing the next day, we are handed a hotel chit and directed to a bus that transports us to a hotel 40 minutes away.

There’s more to the story, but you get the picture. If you travel by air with any regularity, you have plenty of stories of your own.

My intent is not to bash the problem airline. Their gate agents, pilots, flight attendants, technicians, baggage handlers, etc. were good people trying hard to do a good job. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons the end result was a frustrating, exasperating experience for all.

On the other hand, I was impressed with the way Alaska Airlines was able to deal with an aircraft malfunction/cancellation in a way that resulted in a very different experience.

They preserved a high level of trust and preserved their brand/reputation by:

  1. CHARACTER: Walking their talk — they lived up to their marketing messages of being a professional, caring airline.
  2. COMMITMENT: Despite adversity and inconvenience, the Alaska agents proactively rerouted 8-10 passengers to minimize the impact. Everyone else who watched the gate agent in action received the message: “Alaska Airlines cares.”
  3. COMPETENCE: No one faulted the decision to cancel the flight due to the faulty warning light. In fact, it showed how careful they are about ensuring the aircraft are airworthy and safe. And how efficiently they can troubleshoot a problem, make a decision, and efficiently execute an alternate plan. I don’t know how they were able to have a second jet available and ready so rapidly, but they did.
  4. CONNECTION: The pilot’s routine updates and the gate agents’ proactive rebooking showed they understood the passengers’ concerns regarding the aircraft’s status and the impact a delay would have on everyone’s itineraries. Their apologies were sincere.
  5. COMMUNICATION: The pilot and gate agents kept us informed with regular updates even when it was simply nice-to-know information. Sometimes the message was “we don’t have any new news yet; thanks for your patience.” We appreciated being kept up-to-date.

The delay caused me to miss my connection in Seattle and I had a three hour wait in the Sea-Tac terminal. Not something I enjoyed, but very tolerable because “these things happen” and I knew Alaska Airlines handled it well with safety and concern for their passengers as their top priorities.

It was a stark contrast to similar situations with other airlines where they tell the passengers very little and it seems only when they have to, decisions are made that appear to serve the airline’s immediate interest and not the passengers, and their glossy videos and “From the CEO” messages in their magazines about how much they care about their customers ring hollow. And because — let’s face it — some passengers are jerks and would complain loudly even under the best of circumstances, they choose to make policies that drive the actions of their employees based on a very low common denominator.

I hope my experience with Alaska Airlines was not unusual for them. Given a choice, I’ll fly them again soon and often.

How does your team respond to adversity?

Are your policies and procedures designed to build and preserve trust?

In the moment of truth, who comes first: your company or your clients? How do you know?

Build a High-Trust Company by paying attention to the 5C’s of trustworthiness.