NOTE: This guest post was written by Alan Carmichael, president of Moxley Carmichael.
The world was shocked when they saw United Airlines forcibly remove a passenger from a recent flight, precipitating a public relations crisis of the worst order, compounded by an incredibly bad company statement about the incident and the need to “re-accommodate these customers.”
In the week before, Cynthia and I were eyewitnesses to how another airline, Delta, handled its own crisis related to multiple delayed and cancelled flights following severe storms in the Southeast. Like United, this incident pointed out lessons in public relations, customer service and the critical need for crisis training and advanced planning – internally as well as externally.
Cynthia and I were among hundreds of passengers stranded in the Atlanta airport overnight April 5-6 due to cancelled flights resulting from the predicted bad weather. It happens, but what we saw and experienced that night should give any airline CEO real incentive to see that the crisis could have, and should have, been handled a lot better on the ground.
Let me say at the outset, Delta is one of our favorite airlines. They have provided us excellent service and customer care on numerous flights at home and abroad. In addition, no one questions how Mother Nature can interfere with the best laid plans of man and airline.
Scheduled for an 11:30 a.m. departure, we took off late from Knoxville on Wednesday, April 5, because flights already are backing up in the Atlanta Delta hub because of the storms. In Atlanta, we headed to our gate for a flight to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport to join other Knoxville folks for a Clarence Brown Theatre visit to see plays. The flight originally was scheduled to take off at 1:45 p.m. and arrive in New York at 4:05. We were to see a play at 8 p.m. At the gate, the real drama begins.
On a day with an already deteriorated schedule situation, there is ONE gate attendant for this very full flight. The plane is at the gate, but there are no pilots and no flight attendants. It is a story being repeated at other gates due to the weather.
Then begins a litany of many assurances that the flight will get out that night as the storms subside. “We are waiting on a crew.” So, people for the most part hang at the gate. Some try to jump on other flights but find that the same situation exists there, too.
At some point, while the hours are passing by, we are joined by Delta’s “Captain George,” a 30-year veteran pilot, who takes over the microphone from the gate attendant. He announces he will be our pilot.
We are treated to highlights of his career as he, too, reassures us that the flight will be going to New York that night. “How do I know this?” he asks. “They need this plane to be in New York (for tomorrow’s flights).”
There will be several repeat trips to the gate area microphone to give us the same message: “We apologize for the delay. We are going to get you to New York tonight. Stay with us. This is your best option. There are no hotel rooms available for miles. We are waiting on flight attendants to arrive.” Many pilots and flight attendants are timed out and can’t fly due to regulations. No argument there. Safety is the big consideration.
We are now well past midnight. Passengers are restless, making trips to the desk to ask questions. At this point, the gate attendant is shouldering through the tough situation pretty well, but the key point: she is terribly alone in handling a planeload of tense and tired passengers. A quick visit down the concourse shows the same thing, not enough personnel around to handle the crisis and the questions of the passengers.
Another pilot shows up and is applauded by the passengers at the gate. Later, a crew of flight attendants shows up to cheers and applause. The crew members rush onto the plane. Now, we are awaiting approval to shove off. “This is still your best option,” from Captain George.
Inexplicably, the airport emergency strobe lights and warning siren go off. “There is an emergency in the building. We are investigating. We will let you know what we find out.” Now, they really have everyone’s attention. But the same message goes off again and again, and we come to realize it is some kind of malfunction. No one pays attention anymore.
Then, at 3 a.m. the message comes from Captain George. “The flight has been cancelled.” A collective groan goes up as passengers rush the desk to see if other flights can be booked, but everything else is pretty much cancelled, too. The flight attendants rounded up for the flight grimly exit past us.
A large, older white gentleman in the middle of the line begins yelling at the African-American gate attendant, who is doing the best she can with a very bad situation. She has been there for 13 hours. “Get some help down here!” he shouts.
“There is no one else, sir,” she says.
“Get your supervisor down here!” he shouts. Then, he begins to berate her.
Another passenger in the gate area tells the man to back off. A young black man next to us tells him, “She is doing the best she can. Leave her alone.”
Then, the man launches into the young man. The younger man responds, “I can whip your a–, old man.”
The F-word sails across the gate area many times. A man behind the line is talking to Delta on the phone and uses it liberally and loudly. There are young people in the gate area.
Finally, the gate attendant announces that she must leave to greet an incoming flight. She tells some of us at the front of the line (who have been nice to her) that she will not be back. She gives us the names of two attendants in red coats who will be booking flights down the hall. We go book one later that morning to White Plains, New York. “Your luggage will be shifted to this flight, and you will pick it up in White Plains,” the new attendant said.
Eventually, everyone wanders off to sleep in chairs or on the floor. It looks like Scout camp. We doze a few minutes at a time. We are awakened periodically by the emergency message.
The next morning, we fly out to White Plains after 20 hours in the Atlanta airport. We arrive, but our luggage doesn’t. We find out it is at LaGuardia Airport where our first flight was headed. We hire a car to take us to New York City at a cost of $137. We get our luggage the next day.
We tell ourselves that this is a First World problem, and it could be worse, but there are some lessons here for Delta Airlines if they are interested in the feedback.
- Revisit your crisis plan. Prepare better for the worst-case scenarios.
- One pilot told us that part of the problem is that airlines don’t have enough crews anymore.
- When bad weather is coming, work on making additional resources – in the air and on the ground – available to fill in. Pay the overtime to additional ground personnel. It will be worth it.
- One gate attendant is not enough, especially at 3 in the morning.
- Give crisis communication training to all personnel who deal with customers.
- Tell the truth to passengers. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Don’t promise something you can’t deliver.
Note to passengers: No matter how bad it gets, treat the people who are trying to help you in a friendly and respectful manner. You will get more help and information.
Our attendant said if the passenger who berated her got to the front of the line, she was not going to help him.
While well-intentioned, Captain George eventually became the symbol of everything bad that day. To his credit, he stayed around the gate and talked to passengers after the cancellation.
Unlike United, I think Delta will get most passengers back if they do a lessons-learned exercise.
P.S. With Delta still playing catch-up, the 12:55 p.m. flight home Sunday was delayed, and we missed our connection in Atlanta. We caught a later flight and got home at 11 p.m. That was just an 12-hour trip — about the amount of time it would have taken to drive.