Yesterday there was tremendous coverage of an incident where a wheelchair-bound diabetic Parkinson’s patient senior citizen was supposedly left stranded at Chicago O’Hare overnight by American Airlines. Her flight was cancelled, the story went, and the contract worker helping her in a wheelchair just left when their shift was up. Oh and the airline lost her luggage, too.
The story had so much credibility that even American Airlines appeared to believe it. They met the passengers in person and immediately refunded the ticket while they investigated.
We have spoken with the family multiple times, and met with them both in Chicago and Detroit yesterday. Our team has already refunded back the fare for this trip.
American Airlines at Chicago O’Hare
Indeed, it seemed plausible, though I also felt that the woman’s family member who was traveling out of the airport on another flight probably shouldn’t have left her in the care of others. Families actually abandoning senior relatives that are difficult to care for and dropping them at the airport seems to be a thing.
Now, as they say, we know the rest of the story.
It seems the woman wasn’t as unable to communicate as her son reports. And she wasn’t actually left overnight at the airport. Nor was her family left unaware of her situation — indeed, they rebooked her travel.
[A] timeline released by the airline shows that a representative from the contractor assigned to take care of Warsaw spoke with [her son] Coltea at least twice. Airline officials said records show that Coltea rebooked his mother on a flight leaving Saturday afternoon and that he said he would send someone to pick her up at the airport.
The airline said that after a review of closed-circuit television footage it determined that: “Ms. Warsaw was dropped off in the terminal at 12:30 a.m. CT on Dec. 1, and a family member arrived at the airport to pick her up at 1:13 a.m. CT.”
Warsaw was escorted to a wheelchair waiting area located on the upper level of the airport. Once there, video footage shows Warsaw twice using a walker to go outside to smoke a cigarette before being met by a woman. The woman pushes Warsaw toward the door but then stops to take a cellphone picture of Warsaw sitting in the wheelchair. The woman then walks away and returns two minutes later. The video shows she flagged down a police officer, with whom she spoke briefly. The woman then wheeled Warsaw to a waiting SUV, where a man is waiting. The group then left the airport.
I have a feeling I know who at American spent their afternoon combing through airport security footage.
We’re inclined to believe the worst stories of customer service about an airline, because in large measure dealing with an airline is like dealing with the IRS, DMV, and TSA all wrapped into one.
- Airlines are protected from competition. It’s incredibly difficult to start a new airline, and foreigners cannot even own U.S. airlines. Ryanair and Singapore Airlines, for instance, are legally prohibited from transporting domestic passengers inside the U.S. Meanwhile new entrants can’t even break into the busiest airports, with government-owned airports locked down by incumbent airlines.
- They’re large, ossified organizations. Organizations with over 100,000 employees are complex and difficult to manage. Rules necessarily replace discretion, bureaucracies develop, and unintended consequences follow. Dealing with an airline is like dealing with the cable company when the stakes are so much higher.
- Those rules are often built to restrict cost and prevent revenue leakage, keeping employees from helping customers. In an earlier era under Chief Executive Leo Mullin, Delta explicitly had a policy of not helping customers. It was called ‘Simply Good Business’ and known as ‘no waivers, no favors’. At American processes have been automated to prevent agents from helping customers and they’re restricted from putting ‘low value customers’ on other airlines when flights cancel due to mechanical and other problems that are the fault of the airline.
- Airlines don’t even control that much of the customer experience. Airports are almost exclusively government owned in the U.S. Security here is not just regulated by government, but actually performed by government. Any change on an aircraft to accommodate customers requires extensive government review. Once a plane pushes back and until it arrives at its destination it is in the hands of government-operated air traffic control. The amount of end-to-end service actually managed by the airline is limited.
- They’re heavily unionized. It doesn’t much matter to an individual employee whether a given customer is taken care of or not. There is little incentive for employees to go out of their way, and often only consequences if they do. Moreover poor performers are protected from consequences, they burrow in, and do damage to the reputation of the business. Some union shops manage this better than others, for instance Southwest is heavily unionized but manages to preserve its culture by firing the worst performers.
- Focus is on the operation not the customer. Former Pan Am and United executive who was later CEO of Starwood hotels argued that the life or death nature of airlines caused them to focus on the operation rather than the customer. I’ve argued that American in particular seems to focus on its operation with customers seeming to be only an annoyance they have to deal with along the way.
Antiquated Customer Service Tools
In this case the story has an added layer which is that the people who meet planes with wheelchairs aren’t even employed by the airlines, but are contractors. So they’re a step further removed in the chain of accountability.
Often stories aren’t quite the way they’re portrayed by the victim, who will naturally leave out salient details unfavorable to their narrative. Usually though the stories at least resemble the truth. Here there’s quite a bit of doubt even about that, and according to the Washington Post the woman’s son who made the report “did not respond to several requests for comment.”