Be Here Now Marketing: How United Airlines Can Take Advantage of Flight Delays

Empty United customer service counter while 200+ waited in line off screen to the left; most unable to get service from kiosksEveryone knows the airlines are hurting. What I don’t understand is why they seem unable to learn from the recurring problems they experience to be both more efficient and to actually convert them into marketing moments. Here’s a real life example with several free ideas I have for United Airlines, or any airline really.

The Case of the Cancelled Flight

Shane and I were booked to travel from DTW to ORD to LAX to HNL on Sunday, June 29th. Shortly after we landed in Chicago from our first leg (a brief one hour flight) I got an auto alert on my phone saying the next leg was cancelled. I immediately got on the phone to start the re-booking process. Although it was just noon in Chicago, they told me there were no more seats available to either or LAX (Los Angeles) or SFO (San Francisco) both of which have flights to HNL.

Let’s stipulate these generic facts:
* ORD is United’s largest hub.
* There is one Customer Service counter in the entire Concourse B, with 22 gates.
* Going west we gain time; that means more wiggle room for getting home.
* United has flights to LAX and SFO about every 2 hours.
* It’s a 4.5 hour scheduled flight from ORD to LAX/SFO.
* There are flights leaving LAX/SFO for HNL as late as 11 p.m. Chicago time.
* I am a Premier flyer with UA, a designation earned by flying 25,000 miles or more each year.
* UA databases already track me, my miles, my status, etc so that I can have priority seating, etc.
* There are several self-service kiosks adjacent to the human-staffed Customer Service stations.

So how is it possible there was not another plane to be put in service, at their largest hub? How over-booked are the airlines to not have a few extra seats across several flights to two different destinations? We could not even get to LAX or SFO, much less on to HNL. How much does it cost the airline to have to rebook and provide meals and lodging in the event of a cancellation? Consider direct costs as well as labor costs for all the face-to-face interactions that were required to handle each of the interrupted travelers.

Now let me stipulate these case-specific facts:
* Although we were able to re-book via phone (albeit via India) we still had to stand in line to get a hotel voucher and find out the status of our luggage.
* Shane stood in line for 2 HOURS and 33 MINUTES at the lone Customer Service counter.
* The counter was staffed with one or two agents, and at one point, all agents left and there was no one behind the counter (see photo above). The vacancy lasted about 5 minutes.
* UA was willing to rebook us on American Airlines, for a flight at 8 p.m. into LAX. We would have to overnight there. They were not willing to give us a pass to the Red Carpet Club so we could get some work done for the 6 hour wait.
* I spent $50 of my own money to buy drinks for people in line, some of whom waited even longer than two and a half hours.
* No one was using the kiosks; they were told they must see a Customer Service agent to get boarding passes and vouchers.

Bird's eye view of the United counter

How United Could Make Friends Instead of Enemies During a Flight Cancellation

# Attend to your most loyal customers immediately and differently.
** Send automated phone alerts to Premier customers with the following offer:
*** Please come to the Red Carpet Club (link has expired) on a free day pass where we will give you priority re-booking and refreshments and you can wait out the delay in a quiet setting suitable to working and resting.
*** If you like, you can join the Red Carpet Club today for a one-time savings of 20%. If you are already a member, we will provide you with XX credit to your renewal fees (or XX miles to use as you please.)
*** We apologize for the inconvenience you are experiencing and hope these measures will minimize the difficulties to you.
# Utilize existing resources more efficiently and even create selling opportunities.
** Red Carpet Club staff normally are not very busy; let them handle your most loyal customers. This will also relieve some of the burden on the public Customer Service counter.
** It can create an up-sell opportunity out of a crisis.
** I asked three different agents for a pass and they all responded with, “Oh no, we can’t do that, no, no” as if I had asked for a private charter to get to my destination.
# Use the staff and data you have remotely, more efficiently.
** Allow the staff who is doing the re-booking to also issue food and lodging vouchers.
** Allow customers to print new boarding passes and vouchers from the self-service kiosks.
** Allow the customer to choose from a list of pre-approved hotels, when applicable.
** Create a marketing agreement with someone like Target or P&G to have emergency comfort kits on hand. With a voucher printed from the kiosk, a customer could pick up a kit that includes a toothbrush, personal hygiene samples, and a few coupons for later use.
** This would dramatically speed up the process of getting customers on their way and make them feel understood and appreciated for the predicament they are in.
# Provide for basic human needs because it’s a safety issue too.
** If a long line situation is necessary in the short term, then have someone handing out water or simple refreshments. The terminal at O’Hare has wonderful light-filled skylights. It was also very hot and stuffy and I can easily see a situation of dehydration causing a more serious problem, especially for an older passenger.
** I took it on myself to go buy 20 bottles of cold water and soda to hand out – you would have thought I was Mother Teresa! Thinking ahead to people’s basic human needs can help people connect with you positively.
** My father, 84, said to me, “I can’t imagine what I would have done. I wouldn’t be able to stand in line that long. What would have happened?” In his case, he would have simply paid whatever it took to get out of the situation, and, he would be on the phone next day raising holy hell with the airline’s executives and his own travel department. One influential traveler can direct an entire company to stop using your airline.
# Higher Tech Options
** Develop hand-held computers (like Apple and Hertz use) to print out vouchers so a mobile agent could be in line processing the simpler cases.
** Assign passengers to groups, and ask them to return in staged, 15-minute increments. Give them a number or card for their group. This would allow them to rest in a nearby gate or eat or use bathroom facilities the majority of their time.
** What about using those vibrating hand-held devices many crowded restaurants use? Again, it lets people use their wait time productively instead of being tortured to stand on their feet in a long hot line.

Bottom Line – There is Opportunity Here

Chicago is United’s major hub. What a great place to have products and systems in place for the inevitable cancellations and delays. These are regular occurrences that seem to throw the airlines into crisis every time they happen. They could be marketing moments and irritations instead.

I asked one agent, wasn’t there one other plane, given the hub status, to put into service? She responded that it was the end of the month and they were running out of personnel hours. The inadequately-staffed Customer Service counter reflected this also. Dear companies, at some point you’ve got to stop cutting back on people.

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Overbooking and and capacity cuts are also max’d out. You would think the many flights a day from ORD to LAX/SFO could absorb one cancelled flight’s worth of passengers, but that was not true on Sunday.

The airlines plan for the big things, but the little things that truly affect millions and define their impressions of your brand and over-burden your personnel? Largely ignored.

Little things can make a big difference and would actually save money I believe. Some one-time programming upgrades would allow existing kiosks to handle passengers. Having some comfort kits could help your branding and might actually be free – I can imagine companies wanting to have that type of access to travelers to introduce their products. Providing water or a few chairs? That’s basic humanity.

Of course these are just one person’s ideas, born from “being here now” (with a wink to @PatrickByers). To gather more ideas, instead of having a formal survey that doesn’t really allow the customer to describe her experience, how about setting up a customer service forum? Many will not be easy to implement, but what are the real costs of delays and the incumbent stress and out of pocket compensations?

As a loyal United customer, I want to see them succeed! I regularly pay an extra $100-200 to get my preferred seating and extra leg room. There are many of us who are actually on your side, but please, we don’t want to be tested any more than this.

On the other hand, what if in a year we could start reading blog posts like United Takes the Pain out of Flight Delays or Get Stuck Here if You Have to Get Stuck. Air travel has turned into an equally miserable experience for both passengers and airline staff. Let’s turn this airship around and take advantage of both the hub structure and the data mining that are readily available to the airlines so we can help ourselves more and stop having the heinous history repeat itself.