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Lessons in Quality During a Long and Strange Journey Home

palm treesI didn’t expect that our family trip to Florida would end with me driving a plane load of passengers nearly 200 miles to their homes, but it did.

Yes, it was a long and strange journey home. A journey that started in the tropical warmth of southern Florida and ended the next morning in central Pennsylvania, which felt like the arctic wastelands thanks to the dreaded polar vortex.

During this journey, I didn’t just experience temperature extremes, but also extremely different levels in the quality of customer care. Working at Minitab, I'm very aware of the quality of service because quality improvement is our key mission!

Setting the Stage

In this story, there are some factors that the airline understandably can’t control, like the odd mechanical problem and the fact that the nation's air traffic system was backed up due to the polar vortex gripping the region in arctic conditions. However, there are other factors which the airline can control, such as its policies, training, and the flow of information through the organization.

As you’ll see, the moral of the story is that when the airline doesn’t effectively handle the controllable factors, it can make an unexpected situation even worse.

My family’s return to our home in central Pennsylvania started normally enough. Our flight from Miami to Philadelphia left a little late, but early enough to catch our connecting flight. The problems started in Philadelphia when our flight to State College was repeatedly delayed and then finally cancelled around 11 p.m. due to mechanical reasons.

The gate manager, who turned out to be the one well trained airline employee we worked with, clearly laid out the situation. Normally the airline would put us up in a hotel because the cancellation was due to a mechanical problem. However, the block of rooms that cost $100 was sold out. Further, because of numerous weather-related cancellations, the next available flight was in two days. So, she was going to arrange for a bus to drive us to State College that evening.

Great! It wasn’t exactly how we pictured getting home, but it would suffice and the reasons were logical. Unfortunately, this point is when things started to get unpleasant.

Where Things Go Wrong

airplaneThere were 14 of us scheduled for this commuter flight into State College, and we hung around the gate waiting to hear about our bus. The gate manager had told us to wait by the gate because we’d be leaving soon.

Instead, we waited and waited, not hearing any news at all. All of the airline personnel had quickly gone missing. One gate agent (not the previous manager) came by periodically for other reasons, but she didn’t know anything about anything. I started to think of her as Ms. Shrugs-A-Lot due to the gesture that always accompanied her non-answers. She didn’t even know if they were still trying to book a bus or not!

After much more waiting, Shrugs-A-lot came by and, after more non-answers, flagged down the point of contact (POC) manager who happened to be walking through the terminal. According to Shrugs-A-lot, the POC manager was the lady who was personally booking our bus and could answer our questions. Great!

We asked if she was still trying to secure a bus for us, or if that wasn’t going to work out. We wanted to know if it was worth sitting around in an increasingly deserted airport. She scowled as us, and left, literally without saying one single word. Even Shrugs-A-Lot was speechless!

Time to Bail?

At this point, we don’t know if the airline is truly getting a bus for us. Airline personnel are vanishing because the airport has officially closed. The airline had previously stated that it wouldn’t cover hotels for us and the earliest possibility for a seat on a flight was in two days. It felt increasingly likely that, given the lack of information and personnel, the default outcome would be that we’d spend the night in the airport and still not be able to leave for a couple of days. Very frustrating!

We eventually run across that first, knowledgeable gate manager who proposed the bus plan. Almost in tears, she admits that POC manager, who was responsible for acquiring the bus, wasn’t even communicating with her!

So, with procedures and communications failing, it seemed like a good time to bail. Looking online, I found a 15-passenger van that I could rent one-way. That was fortuitous, because there were 14 of us!

I rented the van, did some quick calculations, and announced that I would drive people back home for $40 a head. Before I knew it, my fellow passengers were thrusting cash into my hands! Apparently, that was a small price to pay in order to arrive home in 3.5 hours versus total uncertainty.

And, that’s how I ended up driving a plane load of passengers home! Our family arrived home at about 6 a.m. after dropping off the other passengers.

A Totally Different Experience

The van we rentedOur experience at the car rental company was completely the opposite of the airline. On their web site, I quickly found the van that I could rent one-way. It was crucial that the information was accurate because the airport was closed and we would not be able to get back in if we wanted. The van had to be truly available, right now at 2 a.m., and for a one-way rental, which can be hard to find.

Perhaps being distrustful due to my recent experience with the airline, I didn’t reserve online but instead called the 800 number to be sure. The representative assured me that not only was the van available, but it was ready to go right now! Imagine that, the car rental website and toll-free number both had consistent information, which turned out to be entirely accurate. He even knew that the shuttle was still running even though the airport was closed.

At the car rental place, the staff was friendly, knowledgeable and communicated very well both with us and each other. And, this was at about 2 a.m., after an extra-hectic day for them!

Because it was a large van, there were special requirements and forms. The representative had them down pat and we got through them quickly and efficiently. While doing this, a second representative brought out a box of bottled water for us, and a third representative pulled the van up to the door and let it warm up. That was especially appreciated because the wind chill was down to -30F (-34C)! These nice touches, along with their jovial attitude, really made for a positive experience.

The High Quality Difference

During this travel fiasco, I saw firsthand how high-quality training and customer care made all the difference for us and the staff during a stressful time.

The airline had insufficient resources in the airport. The customer service desk had a lone agent with a huge line. At first the airline claimed that there were no hotel rooms, but later admitted there were rooms but not below the $100 limit. There seemed to be no flexibility in terms of reconciling the policy to put us in a hotel and the policy of not spending more than $100 per room. Airline personnel weren’t on the same page and communications broke down between the POC manager and the knowledgeable gate manager. Information just didn’t flow.

After our experience with the airline, we felt distrustful and abandoned. And the airline personnel were also stressed and even angry with each other! The gate manager wanted to provide good service, but the system failed her.

In the following days, the airline continued the game by trying to change the cancellation from being due to a mechanical problem to a weather delay! They also said we shouldn’t have “abandoned” our luggage in Philadelphia when we decided to drive home. At that point, the whole airport, including the baggage claim, was closed!

In the end, the airline apologized, gave us our luggage, refunded our last flight segment and gave us vouchers. That helped, but it didn’t have to be that difficult.

Compare that to the car rental company that had consistent and accurate information flowing through the system. The representatives were cheerful, knew what they had to do, and worked as a team. We were happy and they were happy.

The airline should assess and correct its quality of customer service. To do this, they can use Lean and Six Sigma's collection of tools for collecting data and clearly understanding situations. For example, tools such as FMEA and SIPOC can help the airline identify problems, risks, failure modes, causes, and factor in the voice of the customer. Conveniently, Minitab makes a process improvement software package called Quality Companion that makes these tools and many more available in a single application.

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