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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Punch-up in 1st class.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it got close.

On my flight into Orlando last night, the crew who had been doing the Florida turn for two days informed the passengers that the flight would have moderate-to-extreme turbulence the whole way, advising travelers to use the facilities before boarding as there would likely be no in-flight service.

Great example of taking a service experience variable and setting expectations for customers, and kudos to US Airways for it.

The announcement also put passengers understandably on edge, which amplified the effect of what happened next.

A passenger missed the “turn cell phones off” cabin message and was reminded by the crew to turn his iPhone off. When he didn’t, it was apparent that he didn’t just “miss the message”, but had no intentions of complying.

Reminded again by a now-frustrated crew member, he turned the phone off and set it aside until the attendant was out of site, at which point it came on again, all while we’re taxiing toward our takeoff. Now another customer became involved, telling the man to comply with the rule. “iPhone man” was responsive, only to say that he didn’t intend to listen to another passenger, and an escalating argument broke out, involving at various stages profanity and a polite request by one party to finish the conversation in the parking lot upon arrival. Again, all happening while we’re taking off.

In stressed service environment where the experience was going to be diminished with a rough ride and a reduced service level and people already had feelings of anxiety over a natural fear of flying in bad weather, one emotionally unintelligent customer made the experience worse for several others.

The Cabin Crew missed the exchange, though I don’t know how.

What could US Airways have done to deal with a problem customer at a sensitive time?

The first step in getting the customer to play their role in effective service delivery is letting them know what it is. In this case US Airways (and every other airline over more than a decade of this announcement) has done this job adequately.

Secondly, they should let the customer know the negative impact of their noncompliance on the service experience – in this case, WHY the passenger needs to turn off his cell phone. This is a tough one, because I don’t know that anyone believes that consumer electronics interfere with airplane avionics enough to cause a negative outcome, so relying on that explanation might create more disobedience. In this case, it likely would have been enough to restate that FAA regulations require it, and therefore we’re all going to need to comply.

But, if the customer knows their role, knows the consequences of not performing their role, and still refuses to do so, then the service provider has to deal with the problem.

Given that causing an in-flight disturbance these days seems to give airlines carte blanche to do anything, up to and including restraint, removal and incarceration, US Airways had a lot of leeway here.

They could have incented the passenger to turn off the phone. “If you turn off the iPhone, I’ll bring you a Dewars & water once we’re airborne.” That might reinforce a negative customer behavior, for all of us passengers within earshot included.

They could have turned the plane around and removed the passenger from the flight. They were well within their rights, and it would send a very clear message as to appropriate behavior. The negative would be that at this point, the experience for the rest of the passengers would be substantially diminished through what would end up as hours of delay time. The airline would incur thousands in costs for delay time and added expenses. And given the general attitude of the traveler, might escalate the episode to the variety tweeted & blogged about.

Personally, I think a quick announcement from the captain that if all electronics weren’t off, we were going to give up our place in the flight line until they were, and that everyone could thank the passenger in 3D for the delay, would have worked just fine.

Public embarrassment isn’t the most mature way to create customer conformity where needed, but it’s usually effective.


Jan said...

I agree with your suggested solution. And I continue to be appalled at the rudeness of some people. Don't you wonder what completely essential call he was taking, tweet he was tweeting?

Chris Reaburn said...

I don't remotely care what his call / email message was.

I actually count myself in the group that doesn't believe that electronics interfere w/ avionics, but in my opinion, the experience of the many supercedes his 'need' or 'belief'.

A plane full of already nervous passengers, worried about personal safety and expecting the worst. This passenger's actions showed an unbelievably low emotional intelligence. More emotionally mature people realize that how they behave in service environments (and public in general) has a dramatic impact on the experiences of others - it's not always about "what you've got going on".