Holiday travel without the 2 Second Advantage

A recent post gave an example of BPM and Big Data coming together for an excellent customer experience. Great BPM is a powerful capability in the hands of your employees. The following is a true story that relates what happens in their absence.

The scene

Christmas is only three days away and the gates at Washington Dulles are packed with people carrying luggage, spools of wrapping paper, enormous Fisher Price boxes and heavy winter jackets. The building is overheated and there’s a palpable apprehension as everyone fears the worst may happen: significant challenges of getting home during the holidays.

Us versus Them

We’ve already waited through our several-hour delay, but as we approached our gate for the Paris flight we have a sinking feeling that comes from years of travel experience. The airline gate staff looks harried and a large mob of customers is forming under the banner of perceived mistreatment. Tension grows as the airline representative makes perhaps the biggest mistake possible and says into the public address system, “Folks, we have no information. This flight is operated by XXXXX Airlines and we can’t get them to give us any information.” To make matters worse she then says, “We’ve called XXXXX Airlines and no one will accept responsibility for any decisions about this flight.” Gasoline on the fire. Her ‘Us versus Them’ statements only make the crowd more upset, especially as her airline and the other are in a tight business relationship. I’m struck by the apparent lack of training, lack of process, and lack of clear, contextual information in the moment and place where it is needed.

Tribal knowledge

A pilot from XXXXX Airlines enters the gate area and is immediately mobbed by passengers hoping to gain information. He has clear, concise information and delivers it professionally and without any blame. The plane is broken and the crew is beyond their FAA-regulated number of work hours. He isn’t he proper source for this information, but in the absence of good information from the proper channels, people will always resort to the unofficial source. Passengers begin to discuss what they know in small and then larger circles. Phones come out and tweets and Facebook posts fly. Within minutes, thousands of people outside of our situation are aware of just how poorly things are going. Millions of dollars spent on marketing and customer service are being undone in moments as fingers tap away.

A manager eventually shows up and sets people up with hotel vouchers and transportation to the hotel. It is nearly 1am.

Angry mob

Everyone is back at the gate at 7am but now with a new cast of gate agents. Before very long, the first announcement is made, “Folks, we don’t know where the XXXXX Airlines flight crew is or how to reach them.” The next announcement is, “We’ve found the crew and they just woke up and won’t be here until 10am.” By now, a passenger is collecting everyone’s email addresses to lead a group response to the airline and there are people shouting. The ‘Us versus Them’ that began between the airlines is now firmly entrenched in the crowd’s psyche. Texts and tweets are flying, and many are calling the airlines on their cellphones. It is an ugly mob now out for blood. We don’t leave Washington, DC until nearly 1pm after two no-show passengers cause a change to the manifest…but one airline doesn’t know how to remove those names from the other airline’s documents. International flights can’t leave without an accurate manifest.

What could have been

A few relatively easy things could have completely prevented the customer service and operations disaster that this became.

  • Process: The airline lacked a process for managing the problems that are common to airline travel…crew and maintenance issues when working with their partner airline.
  • Training: The staff were unprepared to manage customer expectations and stay calm in a tense situation. There was little process being executed but lots of ad hoc behavior.
  • Data: Throughout the 16-hour ordeal, there was a lack of information that would have allowed the employees and customers to make good decisions. People without information lose their sense of empowerment and quickly react in visceral ways.
  • Analytics: The airlines could easily have technology in place to identify “hot spots” for operations and customer service and to dispatch a team able to manage volatile situations. Instead things spun out of control until the passengers and airline staff were openly hostile.
  • Mobile technology: Besides cell phones, the airlines staff had no way to communicate with their operations people throughout the incident. I had plenty of time to envision the key apps that would have been ideal for agents and travelers and far better than the seven staff grouped around three aging terminals, behind a counter.
The cost

These issues are very solvable with technology available today. Consider this– before this one incident plays out in complaints and appeasements, the cost to the airline in financial/reputation terms will be significantly higher than it needs to be and easy justification for a change in technology and process. Airlines, if you’re reading this, it is time to make the investment so many other industries are making. BPM done well transforms the traveling experience.


Tags: , ,

Categories: Data Analytics / Big Data, Real-time, Tech Strategy

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

Subscribe to the blog

Subscribe and receive an email when new articles are published


  1. Continental and United are a warning to others | Successful Workplace - June 23, 2012

    […] It has been a very, very rocky ride. You probably don’t need to fly on United to know, as the news and social media have had an unending supply of travel horror stories. We had many of our own and one that was epic enough to write about this past Christmas. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: