Friendly skies

I was five hours late returning from San Francisco to home yesterday but I was remarkably calm and sanguine about the delay. Why? Because I was well-informed and well-cared-for. And that was the case because this year I joined the secret society of most-frequent travelers and ticket buyers on United: Global Services.

sfo screenshotWe were taxiing out to the runway at SFO for our agonizingly early 6:45 a.m. flight when the pilot said a gauge wasn’t acting properly. Back to the gate we went (and I was amused that my United app showed us arriving before we’d taken off). Much testing and back-and-forthing by mechanics ensued. It didn’t work. The plane was taken out of service. We were told to leave. Shit happens.

Then could have begun the customary hell of wrenches — literal and figurative — thrown into travel plans and planes. That was nearly the case. The entire planeload ran to a customer-service line seeking rescue. The person behind the counter said she couldn’t rebook us because our tickets were “used.” We were told United was, and I quote, “looking for” a plane. Pesky critters go hiding, apparently. Grumbling started to rumble.

But then two nice things happened. First, the lady behind the counter, named Rita, scolded operations at the airline for not giving passengers complete and accurate information. How nice — how rare — it was to have an ally fighting for us, the customers. That also preempted our need to fight for ourselves.

Then I got a phone call from Global Services. This, I quickly learned, is the real perk of being in the club (not just being the obnoxious guy who gets to get on the plane first). A very nice woman named Terry Norris told me that she had already rebooked me on three — yes, three — flights to afford choices based on time, airport, and seat assignment. Wow. I wasn’t sure what to do so I held onto one choice and Terry let me wait to decide while the airline went looking for its pesky plane. (Of course, when found, I imagine an employee shouting this:)

About an hour later, Terry called me back and informed me that a plane coming in from Raleigh-Durham had been assigned to us (which, of course, is what they mean then they say they “found” a plane). It would be arriving at 10:05 a.m. I’d still have my beloved first-class, aisle, bulkhead seat (I’d bought an upgrade with my miles). It so happens that I knew about the found plane before the gate agent did and filled him in.

I took to Twitter to thank and publicly praise these good people.

And then @ahalam had a suggestion:

Right. Why shouldn’t everyone get the kind of service I got yesterday? Well, the answer at first is obvious: It would be prohibitively expensive for airlines to have lots of Terrys to personally take care of and inform every customer. I get that service now because the airline made a lot of money off me last year, when I flew more than 100,000 miles. But if every customer could, indeed, get that level of service, wouldn’t the airline make even more money from even more satisfied and loyal customers? Call me an cockeyed optimist, but isn’t that a service ideal?

Well, @ahalam is right: A software agent could take personal care of customers. The new United Android app is good and it keeps me better-informed than I used to be because now I can look up where the plane I’m waiting to board is coming from and when it will arrive as well as the status of wait lists for seats and upgrades. That’s quite an advance.

Imagine if when I arrive at the airport neurotically early, as I tend to do (thanks, Mom), United would ping me and ask whether I wanted that empty seat on an earlier flight. Imagine if when there are problems, United’s software agent keeps me personally informed and, like Terry, gives me other options to get to my destination. Imagine if this automated agent knew I liked going to on pleasure rather than business and sent me a tempting deal to fill up a plane. Imagine if, knowing my preferences in hotels and local transit — Über? rental car? train? — the agent booked and billed me from door to door, giving me choices but not requiring me to go through scores of pages to get the job done. Imagine if the computer agent knew me so well it could preload my own shows on the entertainment system (you left off at episode 23 of House of Cards, Mr. Jarvis) and order me the food and wine I like and seat me next to interesting people who like to talk or people like me who prefer the silence? Imagine, as I suggested a few years ago, if the airline could gather the collective wisdom of its passengers about their favorite destinations or hometowns and share that with other passengers. Imagine if just one airline did all that for us instead of making its money by nickel-and-diming us charging for bags of nuts or bags on the plane.

All that is possible. It would mean that an airline would have to respect customers as individuals rather than as anonymous butts in seats, building trusted and rich relationships with each one of us and rewarding us with tangible benefits.

More important, it would mean that an airline would have to become a technology company (which just happens to own metal tubes that fly). Such an airline’s core competence would be in building systems to super-serve customers with information and solutions and relevant suggestions based on rich data.

As we landed in Newark more than four hours late, I was starting to think this could happen if just one brave airline invested in such a future.

Four hours late? Didn’t I say above we were five hours late? Well that’s because the airline’s computer system had broken down and so none of the flights getting ready to leave were allowed to depart their gates and thus no gates were free for us and so we sat on the runway and — “the hits just keep coming,” said the pilot — then there was no one to drive the jetway to us. Oh, well. And I was imagining the new airline as technology company.

Well, a passenger can dream, can’t he?

In any case, given how much abuse airlines take on Twitter, I thought I’d say thanks to United for making a bad day as bearable as it could be for me. And I’m glad I wasn’t traveling with the passenger whose plane always flies under a dark cloud. See…

Buttry’s travels

And a postscript from Mr. Buttry: