United Flight 958 Another Customer Service Blunder

By now most have heard of United latest blunder.  United flight 958 from Newark, NJ to London had to make an emergency landing in Goose Bay in Northern Canada.  nothing unusual here, mechanical issues happen and most passengers would rather temporary abort a flight than risk a worse emergency somewhere above the northern Atlantic and the Canadian Air Force base in Goose Bay has been used a number of time for emergency landings

United flight 958 blunderThe whole experience would probably not have been a big deal if with an airline with an already bad reputation like United if United had not, once again, dropped the ball on the customer service side.

So let’s revisit the incident.  The aircraft experiences technical difficulties and the captain decides to be on the safe side and turn around to land at the closest airfield that can handle an aircraft like the Boeing 777 , the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Goose Bay Canada, so far so good.

The passengers disembark and are bussed to the barracks on the airfield because the local town does not have enough rooms for the passengers, that’s understandable and I am sure the passengers would not have had an issue.

Then, things start going South.

Blunder #1

Instead of staying with the passengers since United does not have a ground crew locally, keeping them updated, and making sure the accommodations were satisfactory, the crew decides to go spend the night at a local hotel to the dismay of the passengers who do not have anybody to turn to for information

Now I am sure the Canadians did their best but air force barracks are not exactly designed for couples and families, they are designed for single airmen and furnished accordingly, likely with single beds, not what passengers expected

Reading the passengers stories, the outside temperature was close to 30F, pretty cold and passengers complained about the barracks not being heated, being cold and only having light blankets.  Now, you need to remember that if the passengers had disembarked, their luggage were still on the plane.

Blunder #2

These complaints were probably not as bad as the media and passengers describe them, we don’t know, but not having United personnel to take their grievance to (remember, they were in a cozy hotel) the passengers unsuccessfully tried to contact United but somehow bad communications did not allow them to.

We can imagine the frustration building up since by that time United had made no effort to contact them and inform them.

Blunder #3

They then vented their frustration on social media to be again ignored by United until somebody on their social media team finally twitted:

  “The crew must rest in order to continue the flight. You can rest on board the aircraft knowing that they are in charge,”….
You can imagine how that flew (pun intended) with the passengers.  i would imagine not very well
Finally 20hrs later, the aircraft was fixed, the crew showed up and the passengers were flown back to Newark and on to London where United offered to reimburse the leg.
By then, what could have been a benign incident had it been handled properly was all over the news and the internet further tarnishing United’s already bad reputation.
How should United have handled the incident and prevent it to turn into a crisis?
For starter, the cabin crew’s job does not stop at the aircraft’s door, at least not until the passengers have disembarked at their destination and even then, the cabin crew still represents the company in the concourses
In absence of ground crew,they should have stayed with the passengers, spent the night in the barracks with the passengers, be available, work with the CAF personnel to insure that their needs are met and handle complaints
United should have kept the lines of communication open through their crew and keep passengers informed of the developments
United should retrain whoever sent that tweet, there is no excuse for a condescending tweet like that, especially in light of the circumstances.
United flight 958 would have never had the exposure it did had these steps been followed.  it’s all about customer service, about communication, about empathy, things United is desperately lacking and has shown to be lacking for decades.
Customer service is about caring about your customers, United showed it did not care, it’s about communicating, something United did not do and it’s about being there when your customers need you, the cabin crew was nowhere to be seen.
United could have scored a huge hit but they did not care enough to take advantage of the situation.  the cabin crew could have disembarked in Newark under the applause of the passengers…if only they had cared enough
Now that brings me to a couple of other points
“if they had cared enough”.  For employees to care about the customer and customer service they have to care about the company, to care about the company, management has value the employees and treat them as such.
Customer service of the absence thereof is part of the company culture and a reflection of management towards customers and customer service.  It’s a top down attitude.  If management does not care, neither will front line employees.
Only a small percentage of employees care about customer service when the rest of the organization does not and usually they don’t stick around and move on to an organization that reflect their values.
United should have taken lessons from Quantas flight 32 (QF32) and how the captain and the crew crew handled the crisis and passengers

“The QF32 incident made headlines around the world but beyond the airmanship, leadership and teamwork on the flight deck, Captain de Crespigny then instinctively continued to lead when back in the terminal with his passengers (customers). Despite his emotional and physical exhaustion from piloting and managing the crisis over four hours in the air and on the ground, he then assumed the role of customer service and Public Relations (PR) representative for Qantas, Airbus and Rolls-Royce.

He didn’t need to refer to a manual to do a masterful job because the culture within Qantas empowered him with shared values of transparency and service excellence. Rather than leave it to PR and customer service people, he took charge and when every passenger was safely in the terminal he went and spoke to them saying: “When you fly Qantas you’re flying with a premium airline and you have every right to expect more. An army of Qantas staff are right now finding you hotel rooms and working out how to get you to Sydney as soon as possible. But right now I want you to write down this number – it’s my personal mobile phone and I want you to call me if you think Qantas is not looking after you or if you think that Qantas does not care.” Then he explained what had happened, why, what would happen next and disclosed everything he knew. He answered every possible question in multiple passenger lounges for over two hours. He prepared everyone for the media circus that would ensue and stayed in the lounge with passengers until there were no more questions – eventually he was standing on his own.”

At Quantas, customer service is weaved into the corporate culture, it is the corporate culture

Two similar events, two very different ways to handle the situation, two very different outcomes, in the Quantas case, the passengers became evangelists, in the United case, well the story made the news and caught social media by storm but not the way United would have liked and they only have themselves to blame.

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