Customer Service, Airline Style

In a world with jumbo shrimp, exact estimates and constant variables, it makes perfect sense to see the words “customer service” in close proximity to anything related to air travel. My family and I recently vacationed in Italy and had a smooth trip to Rome followed by a wonderful week of sight-seeing and fun. On our way home, however, we experienced firsthand the full effects of what happens when a company puts its needs ahead of the customer’s.

Our return flight was a customer service disaster and made me reflect on the huge differences between the airline industry and our own at Borden Dairy. Survival and growth in the dairy business means competing with tireless intensity every day. What would happen if I called Walmart and said, “Oh, hey. We’re having a ‘crew availability’ issue right now and don’t really know when we’ll get product to you.” Exactly. Walmart would make a couple calls—possibly even just one—and trucks from another dairy provider would be backing up to their store docks tomorrow morning.

But airlines don’t face the same level of competition, mainly because the industry grew out of a heavily regulated environment and today operates mostly from hubs. My family and I live in Dallas, which means trips begin and end at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). That’s an American Airlines hub, and though there are five terminals, four are entirely American. More than 80 percent of all gates at DFW is American.

When we were returning from Italy and a weather system near DFW required some circling, I started worrying when the captain came over the intercom and said we were being diverted to Austin, Texas to refuel. That’s when the cadence of bad choices began for American. Three hours waiting for a gate to open. The crew timing out. Instructions to deboard and go through customs. Permission denied (for an hour) to leave the baggage area and proceed to customs. Baggage handlers unavailable to unload checked luggage (fortunately, we just had carry-on’s).

Customer service indeed (more jumbo shrimp, anyone?). We ended up renting a car and driving four hours back to Dallas all because of negligent customer service. But you know what? The next time I travel, there’s a 99 percent certainty I’ll be flying American from DFW. What choice, really, do we have? When service, costs and innovation are optimized for the customer, the customer wins. And even though Delta Airlines made a commitment to not cancel flights because of the crew, how much does American worry about Delta at DFW? They’re certainly not worried about me and the 8-9 hours added to our return from vacation.

Competition is healthy. And yes, as a business executive, there are also times I find it stressful. But competition brings out the best in what we do and how we do it. It works for me—because it works.