When passengers on Captain Denny Flanagan’s United Airlines flights encounter an unexpected delay, they have an experience they are sure to tell all of their friends and families. But, these passengers aren’t talking about the delay, they’re raving about how Capt. Flanagan left the plane to find a McDonald’s in the terminal and returned with a bag of 200 hamburgers to pass out on the plane. Last week, when my Continental Airlines flight was diverted from Newark to Pittsburgh, we sat on the plane hungry for 9 hours total without being allowed to deplane. Now, I know Continental can’t control the weather, and I’m grateful they aren’t allowed to try to land the plane in a lightning storm, but they can learn from the experiences Capt. Flanagan provides his passengers that turn bad experiences into Word of Mouth opportunities.
The next leg of the trip saw another 4-hour delay, where I sat in the hot terminal with no seats, no free wi-fi, and nowhere to plug in my fading iPhone. Again, I don’t expect you to take off with no co-pilot or flight attendant (who were delayed out of Michigan), but throw us a bone here.
In bad times, invest a small amount of time and money in making your passengers happy. The return on your investment can be a fleet of shiny brand loyalists who will evangelize their experience to friends and families. Here are some ways an Airline can turn a bad experience into a bearable one and get people talking:
- WWDD (What Would Denny Do?): Read the WSJ article on how Captain Flanagan treats his passengers. Create a corporate culture that inspires similar behavior. Make sure pilots know they can expense 200 cheeseburgers and empower them with the tools to treat passengers like valued customers.
- Information: Look, the FAA is in charge here, most of us know that. But, let us know what’s going on. If we understand the situation, we can deal with it better. In Newark, there were very few seats in the terminal, and you had to find one even if it meant going to a different gate. Information at the gate was sparse, but if you weren’t there you got nothing. How can you keep us better informed?
- Connectivity: In Newark, you had to pay for wireless internet service (some airports offer this free). If I were running Continental Airlines, I’d make an arrangement with Boingo (Newark’s wi-fi provider) to buy wi-fi passes in bulk. It’s a small investment for a large return… Time passes much faster when we are playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.
- Buy Some Power Strips and Extension Cords: We hate being stuck in an airport because we feel cut off. Our phones and laptops help alleviate that feeling (see Connectivity above), but there are about 12 outlets in the whole terminal. If I were you, I’d buy a bunch of extension cords and power strips, providing more outlets and locations to plug in. It’s a low-tech solution, but, trust me, we’ll REALLY appreciate it.
- Liquor? I Barely Know Her: Sorry, but free headphones for the remake of Escape from Witch Mountain only makes matters worse. Offer to buy us a drink. We won’t all accept it, but it’s the thought that counts. I’m not suggesting turning the airplane into a keg party. One drink – it will take the edge off for a few people, and the gesture will be appreciated.
I should mention that Continental isn’t the only offender. I mean, look at US Airways… When the best PR you’ve had in a decade is crashing a plane in the Hudson, you’re not doing it right. Even Captain Flanagan’s airline got in major social media trouble for breaking guitars:
Airlines, you’re in a tough situation. We hate to travel, and it’s only become more annoying in the last 8 years. We’re tired, we’re cranky, and we just want to get to where we’re going. But, creating a corporate culture that encourages your staff to make it just a little better will do wonders for your positive Word of Mouth. McDonald’s doesn’t even make a great burger, but if you buy us one, we’ll talk about how much we enjoyed it.