Friday, December 11, 2009

Waiting for UAL, and customs and immigration, and the bus driver and the hotel clerk named Godot

Waiting for UAL 836, and customs and immigration, the bus driver, and the hotel clerk named Godot...

One industry that provides my students with some of the richest personal examples and experiences in crisis communications and leadership are the airlines.
I found that the airlines, despite years of tragic experience and other just time wasting experiences still don’t “have it right”. If the pilot of UA 836 from Shanghai said just one more time (after about 8 statements) “just bear with us”, I thought of an agency that should script what pilots and flight personnel say. Too much personality and quips are not welcome when you have been in the airport for 9 hours, 3.5 hours trapped in the plane 15 feet out on the tarmac, served only pretzels and water.
The serious aspect of the travel was that the two flight attendants heard a noise in the rear of the plane shortly after backing away from the gate that we later described as the sound of crushing the luggage vehicle. It was missed by the pilot, but thankfully the flight attendants (who are there for our safety) stopped him from moving to take-off. The saga continued with an inability to diagnose the huge noise (not luggage loose in the hold), but some sort of firing mechanism in the engine (a huge retort). Read or ask Rob Mark at his airline blog site for a technical explanation. My expertise, if I dare, is the failure of the service and communications management and leadership of UAL. 1. They did apologize (over and over and over again). 2. They did not offer a consistent pattern of explanation or up-dates (forgetting us for an hour at a time). 3. They “forgot” to tell us that the flight attendants could not continue past a three hour time (labor agreement) until that became a crisis. 4. They did not arrange for labor to open the doors again, 5. They did not send us to the right immigration gate (imagine about 200 people walking back and forth at 9 p.m. looking for a way out). 6. They did not warn the airport security that 200 plus would have to be re-entered since we had walked from point A to B inside security and needed to be checked again, they forgot to tell the baggage handlers that they needed to remove hundreds of bags or the carrousel would not allow more bags from the belt (I unloaded about 30 bags for exercise), they forgot to put bags on the right bus (some of us peons went to the economy class hotel and others, well you elites know who you are). They failed to tell the hotel to have more than one desk clerk of the 5 on duty help check us in the hotel, etc. And, newsflash, they failed to test the engine before coming up to the gate in front of hundreds of passengers waiting Now, they are now backing away. I guess we will have to “just bear with them”.
The answer in crisis leadership (some insight due to Ian Mitroff) is to consider the crisis in the context of a whole general system: the passengers are connected to the plane is connected to the loading gate, is connected to immigration, is connected to security is connected to baggage claim, is connected to the bus, to the hotel, to the bus, to immigration, etcetera, etcetera as Yul Brenner so capably said. In the spirit of full disclose I did get a free ticket (I think it is a ticket because the letter from the customer relations professional is such a generic apology it might be from Tiger Woods for a free sleeve of golf balls or a well used club for smashing car windows.
The next day from the time of the loading scheduled for 2 p.m. it was also a series of missteps: the same plane had the same mechanical failure (before we loaded). UAL tried to have us bump the same flight number’s plane (all several hundred of us jostling for position at the one gate). However, they finally abandoned the original plane on the tarmac, December 9 flyers (me) took December 10 flyers’ plane and they took (we heard) another plane. To my flying partners at UAL: Systems, systems, systems are linked with software and communications and leadership!

1 comment:

Rob Mark said...

Thank goodness I'm not the only person who thinks United is run by a bunch of boneheads.

Seriously though, a company like United brings new meaning to the idea of the need for integration. I doubt seriously anyone at one dept. at the airline has any idea what most of the rest of the folks are up to.

Rob Mark